Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Me, Angie, and What It Really Means for BRCA

On Tuesday I got a lot of messages, emails, and questions about this article from Angelina Jolie. I am also BRCA positive and like Jolie chose to undergo a preventative double mastectomy a little over a year ago. I was also interviewed by the National Post, and was deeply disappointed when I read the article I was a part of the following morning.

The article is extremely negative. Suggesting that genetic testing and preventative mastectomies are the options selected only by hysterical women as a result of cancer propaganda and fear mongering. And that Angelina is the queen bee leading women down this risky path. It seems to imply a disaster-like scenario where – in part because of Jolie’s celebrity status - women everywhere will want to cut off their breasts. (You can read the full article here)

I think it is safe to say that I completely disagree, and I am incredibly disappointed that my name is associated with this piece of journalism.

But what has distressed me more than anything else is that these ideas are pervasive enough they are deemed acceptable fodder for a national newspaper. That we women are all just weak, irrational, hand-wringers who are likely to think getting a double mastectomy is the same as copying Jolie's hairstyle. That in a state of complete hysteria we will react in a “counterproductive” way. And as feeble minded women it would be impossible for us to look rationally and objectively at the evidence that is presented to us.

This type of commentary feeds the worst preconceptions about women - and what's worse is that it is being perpetuated by a woman. I think the biggest issue I have with this piece is how disempowering it is. The article mutilates education into fear and a question of health into vanity.  

Fear vs. Education
I applaud Angelina for speaking out about her decision and the process. As a result of Jolie’s celebrity the impact of her story has reached millions of women and started a conversation about breast health. Even without a genetic predisposition to breast cancer women should still understand their options and know their risk. Acting proactively is our best defense against breast cancer at the moment - so whether women look into genetic testing or they just remember to book their yearly mammogram because of this - a conversation has been started.

I am sure Jolie’s revelation will not“spook” women into a hysterical trip to the OR. It is meant to inform women that there are other options. Jolie's article is aptly titled "My Medical Choice" - because that is exactly what this is. Women have a choice to go through genetic screening. A preventative double mastectomy is a choice. Screening is a choice. Knowing your risk at all is a choice. Women have a choice in terms of treatment and what they chose to do with the information once they have it.

My choice is exactly that - Mine. I, unlike the women in my family before me, will never wear the badge of honour as a Breast Cancer Survivor. Because I will never have to survive a diagnosis. I chose to act preventatively. A choice I made for myself and for my family. An empowered choice made rationally and thoughtfully with the guidance of medical professionals, not under duress or on a whim.

At the end of the day this is question of agency and empowerment. Improved screening and genetic testing only gives women more tools with which to battle this horrible disease. Increased awareness, education, and conversation can only be a positive.

Health vs. Image
Regardless of an individual’s course of action, this choice is about health. This is a woman’s body, her right, and her choice alone. The consequences of which each woman will weigh with all of strength, courage, and grace she possesses. To suggest that a woman would make a frenzied decision about something like this is insulting.

There is no doubt that choosing to have a preventative double mastectomy has an effect on your body. I have written at length about my own journey to accept the physical changes I willingly made. It was long. It was hard. Tears were shed. An internal struggle raged. But when I woke up and I looked at my body in the mirror I loved what I saw. Like Jolie, I choose health and a long happy life, and I have never once second guessed my decision to put my life first.

I wear these scars and silicone breasts with pride, and I am no less a woman because of it. My body is beautiful because it is strong and above all because it is healthy. Having a woman like Angelina Jolie stand up and say that “health really does trump beauty” sends a very powerful message.

Perhaps it is possible for a woman to offer the world intellect, strength, kindness, and character rather than merely breasts, bedroom eyes, and sexuality. And maybe if we lived in a world that actually valued woman rather than one that objectifies them, making these kinds of choices would not be deemed so difficult.

This is a personal choice about health. The politicization of cancer screening, complicated as it is by our social treatment of women’s bodies has no place. I stand together with Angelina Jolie and all women, who choose to take control of their bodies and their health.

Love Your Favourite Darwinian Fail,