Those who work in cancer treatment and advocacy praised Angelina Jolie's op-ed in the New York Times Tuesday detailing her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy.
"I was favorably impressed with the article,' says Dr. Alexandra Heerdt, an attending breast surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "It was wonderful for women who are facing this and are afraid to do this."
Jolie wrote that she had discovered she carried the BRCA1 gene which greatly increases a woman's chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Facing an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer, she chose to undergo three months of treatments that included the mastectomy which brought the risk down to less than 5 percent.
"One of the most important points she stressed is that this is not cosmetic surgery," says Heerdt. "She made it clear that it was a process that she had to go through, and this is not the easiest of processes."
Advocates agree that anytime a high-profile figure is willing to come out about such a private medical decision like this it raises awareness about the gene – which they point out is very rare – and opens up the discussion of how to handle it. Kiki Ryan, public relations manager at the breast cancer advocacy organization Susan G. Komen, says, "A lot of people will learn about the BRCA1 gene and we hope it will get them to learn more about their family history." Amanda Davis, director of communications at the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance was pleased Jolie brought up that the BRCA1 gene also put her at risk for ovarian cancer – a "below the belt cancer" often overlooked, she says. There is no screening test for ovarian cancer and it's one of the deadliest types, she adds.
Heerdt says the next step for women concerned by Jolie's situation would be to examine their family history for a prevalence of breast, ovarian or rectal cancers, and, if so, then talk to their health care providers about receiving further tests for it. "It's a very small percentage of women that would fall into the same category that Angelina Jolie is in," she says.
Jolie also wrote, "I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity," and advocates were pleased Jolie — chosen "most beautiful" by both Vanity Fair and People — discussed this dimension for her decision.
"Some women feel that it will make them less of a women, make them less attractive. They have to understand that it doesn't have to be terribly disfiguring," says Heerdt. "It is life changing but it doesn't have to be life ending."
Ryan also adds it's important to keep in mind many women wouldn't have access to the premium health care providers available to Jolie, who was treated at the Pink Lotis Breast Cancer Center in Beverly Hills. "We need to keep working to provide local clinics with funding and research to allow under-insured, under-serviced women the same options," she says.