For better or worse, celebrities have a way of making us think. While many celebrities eschew the spotlight outside their particular medium, some good ones actually make use of their fame to help mankind by recording public service announcements, endorsing charities, or raising awareness of important social issues. For example, colonoscopies for colon cancer screening got a significant boost after Katie Couric had hers televised. A few bad celebrities, on the other hand, choose to get on camera and spout dangerous anti-vaccine nonsense that ultimately puts the public at risk (see Bill Maher, Donald Trump, and Rob Schneider, among others).
Angelina Jolie definitely belongs in the "good celebrity" category.
Though scientists were able to map the entire human genome just a few years ago, we still don't understand the vast majority of how genes work. We know there must be good genes —the only proof you need is to look at the beautiful Kim Basinger and her equally beautiful daughter Ireland—but we know there are bad genes too. And Angelina Jolie, despite inheriting a nearly perfect set of good genes from her parents, was unfortunate enough to inherit BRCA1 from her mother.
The BRCA1 gene mutation puts women at about a 5x greater risk of breast cancer and an almost 30x greater risk of ovarian cancer. Those numbers are both significant and scary. Mrs. Jolie's mother died of ovarian cancer at age 56 (having also been diagnosed with breast cancer), as did her grandmother. This strong maternal family history led her to get a blood test, which confirmed that she indeed had inherited the BRCA1 mutation.
In February of 2013 Angelina made the very difficult and personal decision to attack breast cancer before it happened by having a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, drastically decreasing her risk of developing breast cancer (she had been told that she had up to an 87 percent risk before surgery). While this was the best decision for her health that she could have possibly made, it was by no means easy, especially for a Hollywood actress who lives perpetually in the public eye and is part of one of the most famous celebrity couples in the world.
As a surgeon who performs mastectomies, I have witnessed exactly how devastating it can be to have this body- and life-altering procedure done. Despite this, Angelina made the audacious and brave decision not to keep it a secret. Rather than hiding (which she very easily could have done), she openly stated that she was sharing her condition with the world to raise awareness, helping to educate other women who may be similarly affected. Christina Applegate had done much the same several years earlier after her double mastectomy, also revealing that she had inherited the BRCA1 mutation (though she had already been diagnosed with early breast cancer by the time of her surgery).
Last week Angelina took the next step, having her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed laparoscopically in order to dramatically reduce (though not completely eliminate) her 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. Even though several tests showed no evidence of cancer in her ovaries, she again bravely chose to have them removed before they could cause a problem, just like she had done with the mastectomy. While this operation was less drastic cosmetically (and technically less difficult) than her first, the physiologic effects are both profound and instantaneous. Without the hormones produced by her ovaries, she immediately went into menopause, surely a daunting prospect for a vibrant and beautiful 39-year-old mother of six.
But even braver than her decision to have the surgery was the fact that once again she did not shun the spotlight, opting instead to write an op-ed piece in The New York Times on March 24, just a week after the procedure. In it she detailed the latest (and hopefully last) chapter in her ordeal and why she continues to undertake it. Though she admitted that she is still not completely out of the woods (still carrying a 3-5 percent risk of both cancers), she revealed that her main reasons for her candor were to raise awareness and to let women know that they have options, surgical and otherwise.
As happened with Katie Couric, since Angelina made her first BRCA announcement in 2013, testing for the gene has increased by 40 percent. Hopefully this latest statement will increase awareness that much more and encourage people to talk to their doctors and get tested. Women (and men) need to know that this gene mutation exists, because like so many other diseases, it is treatable if caught early enough. It doesn't have to be a death sentence.
I knew Angelina had a good heart when she was named a UN Goodwill Embassador at age 26. This story has only served to solidified my respect for her as a person and my admiration for her courage. Making the decision to have these operations is difficult on its own. Doing it as one of the most recognizable women on the planet makes it that much more difficult. But using your stardom and doing it publicly, all in the name of helping people, is the epitome of bravery.
Angelina Jolie has played the hero in several of her movies. Now she is one for real.