Friday, May 17, 2013

Woman, unstoppable

BADASS.” That’s what a male friend of mine called Angelina Jolie yesterday. It wasn’t a spot assessment of the actress’ career. It wasn’t said as a comment about her role in “Lara Croft Tomb Raider” or her Oscar-winning star turn in “Girl, Interrupted,” or her brutal work in “Salt,” a film where she punched more tickets than an Amtrak clerk at Grand Central Terminal.

My bud’s offhand tribute — intended as the highest compliment — came for a role Jolie’s playing in real life, a role that trumps anything she’s ever done in the movies. On Wednesday, in a stunning, powerful op-ed piece that ran in The New York Times, Jolie announced that she’d undergone an elective double mastectomy in order to short-circuit the “faulty” BRCA1 gene she inherited from her mother, the actress and activist Marcheline Bertrand, who died of breast cancer in January 2007, at the heartbreakingly young age of 56.

The power of Jolie’s piece — unfair advantage: this actress, director and activist has the gift of writing, too — stems from its frankness. It’s passion and practicality without a shred of sentimentality. She explains, for example the process of trying to tell her children about the disease that “Mommy’s mommy” got.

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Her children, she said, “have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

“My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.

“Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.

“Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could.”

And thus, courageously, Angelina Jolie went under the knife.

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I WON’T excerpt her Times’ op-ed piece much further; the runup to the operation two days after Valentine’s Day, the post-op disorientation, her road back — all deserve to be read as part of the piece’s own considerable merits. But the real impact of a piece like this isn’t in the writing itself, but the reactions it inspires.

The cable networks, with a welcome predictability, covered the topic of Jolie’s disclosure like a blanket. Other reactions elsewhere, in mainstream and social media, have been numerous in the days since Wednesday, and, to go by comments in The Times, deservedly supportive.

Linda Charnes of Bloomington, Ind.: “Angelina Jolie’s essay about her choice to undergo a double mastectomy upon learning of her genetic risk was brave and generous. She writes straightforwardly, without a trace of self-pity, about her decision, which was obviously fraught and difficult on many levels. What rings through loudest is her commitment to her children, to be alive for them many years into the future.”

Calaneet Balas, CEO of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance, Washington: “Kudos to Angelina Jolie for speaking openly about her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Despite decades of advocacy, many women are reluctant to speak about cancer, especially below-the-belt diseases like ovarian cancer. ... I hope that Ms. Jolie’s frank talk about her medical choices will encourage other women to start a conversation about ovarian cancer — and what they can do to reduce their risk.”

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Jolie noted that the genetic testing she had done before the operation costs about $3,000, a prohibitive amount of money for most everyday women. “It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live,” she says. The actress thus threw down the gauntlet to the health-care industry: It’s time to cut the crap. It’s time to cut the cost.

But Jolie also threw down a challenge to the rest of us. Maybe the most valuable thing in Jolie’s op-ed, ironically enough, was a message for all people, women and men alike. It’s that the courage she displayed at the Pink Lotus Breast Center was rooted in an awareness of the facts, the stark realities before her, and the willingness to act on them. It was having the courage to do what it takes to stay alive.

“Life comes with many challenges,” she said. “The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”

The op-ed told a personal story of one actress, one woman unstoppable. But something else’s clear in that first-person story of survival: In the world according to Angelina Jolie, we can all be badasses.

Image credit: Angelina Jolie: via BRCA1 gene illustration: National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health.

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