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1st April 2015

5 lessons we can learn from Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie has emerged as an unlikely champion of informed medical decision-making.

This would have been hard to predict if you were familiar with stories of Jolie turning up at her first wedding in black rubber pants or roaming around Hollywood wearing a pendant that contained a drop of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood.

But here we are. Angelina Jolie-Pitt, as the byline of her recent New York Times Op-Ed read, turns out to a rock of sense.

Far from the pseudoscience and quick-fixes peddled by some celebrities, Jolie presented her rationale in a nuanced manner, unafraid of the complexities it presents for women in her situation.

Information is power

In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Jolie explained in 2013 why she had opted to have a preventive double mastectomy and has now written about her difficult decision to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.

Her measured explanation of how she came to make these choices is a lesson in responsible communication. There is no call for people to do what she has done, no sense of absolute certainty about what other women should do.

Instead, she explains how she dealt with the burden of knowing that her risk of cancer was high and how she weighed the options available to her.

A simple blood test showed that Jolie carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene which gave her an 87% risk of breast cancer and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer.

This, coupled with her family history – she lost her mother, her grandmother and her aunt to cancer – informed her decision.

So what have we learned?

1. Angelina Jolie is even smarter than we thought.

She succinctly digested and communicated the complex medical and emotional factors that led her to take a somewhat radical decision. But she’s not necessarily recommending it to other women.

2. Genetic testing is a powerful tool.

It informs and empowers patients but dealing with the results is not always simple. There is no numerical equation that means you should or should not take a particular course of action.

3. Family history matters.

In Jolie’s case, test results alone would not have been enough to lead her to have surgery. And she could have taken an even more radical step by having her uterus removed. She opted not to do that because uterine cancer is not part of her family history.

4. Jolie’s surgery was the first step on a long road.

She is under no illusions about what lies ahead and is not presenting surgery as an easy answer. Jolie is now on hormone replacement therapy to help ease the symptoms of early menopause.

5. Everyone is different.

People with similar family histories and identical genetic risk factors might still come to different conclusions about what is right for them. As Angelina Jolie sees it, as long as you are informed about your options, you will do what is right for you:

“It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.”

Feature Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore