Angelina Jolie: What about Other Kinds of Prevention?

It is not my place, or anyone’s but Jolie’s, to comment on the nature of her decision to undergo a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. Her New York Times op-ed may very well define her in a way that her career as model, actress, and ambassador for charity has not. She has certainly opened up a discussion about the BRCA genes and, generally, mastectomies and oophorectomies as preventive measures. This week’s Time magazine features Jolie and her choice.

Two points from a feminist perspective are highlight-worthy: 1) Jolie was adamant that her femininity was in no way diminished by the procedure. This is a powerful statement from an icon whose fame grew out of the appeal of her body as the epitome of femininity to a public who watches her every move. At the same time, she was able to afford to have her reconstruction performed in short order by a surgeon who is no doubt one of the top plastic surgeons in the country, thereby restoring her look. Not many women who undergo mastectomies, either preventative or to remove cancer already present, will have those ideal resources. The scars left by mastectomies before reconstruction are sobering, to say the least. I would certainly hope each women receiving a mastectomy would have insurance which would pay for a top-notch reconstruction, should that be the option the individual chooses. Also, it should go without saying that women who opt not do undergo reconstructive surgery should not be deemed less feminine.


2) Most importantly, the whole conversation lacks the outrage that should be present, because after decades of research, a woman might still be placed in the position of having to choose such a radical measure! The Pink Ribbon campaign allows each of us to feel we’ve done a little something, maybe even to help ourselves sort of indirectly (quelling fears most women live with that they will eventually develop the disease), by contributing to the cause. Watch the documentary Pink Ribbon, Inc., and rethink this attitude. If only 15% of all those funds are going to prevention, then is it any wonder that a new drug to extend life a bit longer is the latest thing, but the rate of women getting cancer in the west is not decreasing? Prevention should mean prevention–stopping it before it happens. While the general public understands that there are many kinds of cancers and that the mechanisms are complicated, the compelling research that environmental factors and diet have everything to do with whether or not an individual develops cancer is not difficult to grasp, yet goes undiscussed. While the BRCA genes are present in only 0.24% of the population and individuals with these genes presumably face a different set of factors than most, at least in the general population it seems clear that diet can drastically reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. Where is the emphasis on this in the debate? Watch the documentaries Forks over Knives and Ingreedients. The FDA lets us ingest petroleum products and hydrogenated oils that act like toxins on our bodies and recommends food pyramids that raise our risk for cancer and heart disease through detrimental emphasis on meat and dairy.  I’d like to see the urgent need for this kind of prevention enter the conversation Jolie has started.

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  1. my3tots says:

    I agree. I admit I was initially confused by her statement about femininity, given the fact that she had reconstructive surgery. I am not sure why, even if mastectomy is considered to be elective, as in the case of prevention, women aren’t able to get reconstruction covered by insurance. It’s such a small price for companies to pay compared to treatment for cancer. Genetic testing could easily weed out the women who simply want free implants, courtesy of health insurance. If one knows she has the gene, the prevention just makes more sense, even from a cost perspective.

    I think it’s sad (and telling) that Jolie’s second elective surgery to remove her ovaries has gotten far less press than her first surgery.

    People so often use the word “cancer” and “cure” together, as if there is a single cure out there, even for one specific kind of cancer. Certainly, what we eat affects our health. Two problems I have noticed are
    1)The people who try to promote vegetarianism/veganism put out so much misinformation (i.e. “This list of veggies/fruits/vitamins/herbs prevents/cures cancer!”) that people who understand that cancer isn’t a single thing sometimes dismiss healthy eating claims altogether.

    and 2) So many people are limited in their food choices, due to financial constraints (including the disabled and those living in ‘food deserts’). It is sad that the free market is allowed to drive food costs at the expense of a healthier population. I think that this is why so many poor get defensive about vegetarianism (aside from food traditions): They feel like they are being blamed for eating ‘junk,’ when really it’s all they can afford. Also, when you don’t get three square meals a day, you try to get lots of cheap meat and carbs so you don’t get hungry before the next meal. Ex.: 1 lb. hot dogs versus a few cans of veggies for the same price. Their logical conclusion interpretation is, so if I get cancer, it’s my fault. My question is this: How can we encourage others to eat healthier without victim-blaming those who are just trying to get enough to eat each day? Should the govt. regulate food prices for the greater good?

    Bravo to you for daring to speak against Big Pink! When I say something about Komen, whether it’s about their spending, their position on other women’s health issues, the infantilizing serious health problems through the jargon on bumper stickers, or fighting over copyrights to the color pink on a Cure ribbon, I get treated like a pariah.

    • Wanda says:

      Hi my3tots,
      You are so right about the diet concerns. I think it’s Food, Inc. that follows a family which can’t afford to eat anything but fast food. On the other hand, it’s a matter of education and being willing to stick with a change in diet long enough for the body to get over the cravings created by the artificial ingredients in our food. And then we are back to the FDA again. . . At the same time, with two parents working extreme hours, who has time to learn about, seek out, and prepare healthy foods, even simple ones? It is an issue of economic class. Glad you pointed that out.

  2. my3tots says:

    I forgot to mention two relevant websites: and . I won’t go into it here (already wrote a blog about it), but today’s Supreme Court decision on Myriad Genetics, which is in bed with Komen, has made me think about how Jolie could use her influence to help women be better informed – before Komen tries to make her their poster-women for breast cancer.

    • Wanda says:

      It would be great if a real discussion about what finding a cure/cause is really supposed to mean came about. I am skeptical, though. Pink is so pervasive and comforting. Thanks for the websites! It would take a lot of courage for Jolie to take a position that puts Pink in a critical light.

      • my3tots says:

        It saddens me that we have arrived at this level of skepticism about non-profits, but I don’t think that is any fault on the consumer end, so much as it is an ethical problem on the non-profits’ ends. What about MDA? For how many years have MDA been on the air, telethoning? Still, no cure in sight. I for one don’t experience Schadenfreude when I hear that a foundation being called out for mismanagement of donor funds. But, buyer beware: Does most of the money go directly to help its target population and ground breaking research, or does it go to seeking corporation sponsorship, edging out the competition, and /or fundraising merchandise and activities? I don’t think that skepticism should be about creating a distraction, so much as holding corporations accountable.

        I don’t want to say that cancer is ‘outsmarting’ us, as if cancer (or nature) has some kind of will, but that’s the best way I’ve heard it described. Although the main reason I have heard that cancer cures/causes are so elusive is because there are hundreds of varieties (and mutations of those varieties) lumped under one umbrella term, or under a few umbrellas by location, if you will. I keep seeing the words “stem cells” being cautiously brought up in scientific conversations about cancer cures and vaccinations, but that is so politicized that perhaps Big funding shies away from it? I’m not sure. The lack of diagnosed people participating in clinical trials seems to be getting a lot of attention lately, too.
        There seems to be a lot of hype (thanks, Big Media) when isolated cases turn out well. What I’m not hearing much of from the big cancer curing non-profits is how insurance companies and environmental factors (aside form smoking and weight) factor in.

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