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Where cancer and body image intersect


Angelina Jolie stunned the world this week when she revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy in order to reduce her risk for developing breast cancer.

Jolie wrote in the New York Times about her decision, which was based largely on the fact that her mother died of the disease at a young age – and that Jolie had an 87-percent genetic risk for developing it.

Responses to the op-ed piece, "My Medical Choice," have run the gamut from praise and admiration to confusion and "grief" over such an all-American female icon of beauty making the deliberate decision to remove her breasts. Some say that Jolie's decision was the smart thing to do, while others criticize her for altering her body before it was medically necessary to do so.

Yet Jolie stressed, "I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."

When change is necessary

Aletta Poll, a genetic counselor at the Women’s College Research Institute’s familial breast cancer clinic, says that many women struggle with the cosmetic aspect of losing their breasts – even when they have the resources to afford reconstructive breast surgery. Some people "may not always be absolutely thrilled about the physical outcome," she told The Globe and Mail.

For Jolie, the decision to have a double mastectomy was one that became a long process of tests and surgeries – and also brought with it the realization that she would eventually need to have a hysterectomy to eliminate her risk for ovarian cancer too.

"I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex," she wrote.

Taking control

Nearly three months after beginning the process, her breast surgeries are complete, and Jolie says that it was the right thing to do for herself and her family.

"I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience," she concluded. "Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action."

Source: The Globe and Mail, New York Times