What Angelina Jolie and bariatric surgery patients have in common

Angelina Jolie discovers she has a breast cancer gene, the same one that caused her mother to die an early death, and she decides on a proactive, and possibly radical, prevention – double mastectomy. By doing so, she lowers her risk of genetic breast cancer from 70% to 5%. No guarantees, but definitely improved odds of survival. Assuming she continues her lifestyle changes to support her good health.

So while everyone is debating the wisdom of either her decision or her open conversation, I find myself thinking about bariatric surgery patients.

Moderate to extreme obesity increases the odds of dying from all diseases exponentially. Just like having a gene for cancer increases the odds of dying from that cancer.

Before you start eye rolling and pulling an Abercrombie on me, let me state firmly that we have enough scientific evidence that obesity is not gluttony, but is a chronic and difficult-to-control disease of altered physiology. Genetically things are not always working in your skinny favor. Physiologically your body wants to regain the weight you lost. Psychologically that struggle is exhausting.

Some people will make a decision that their weight is beyond their own control. They recognize the downhill course of associated illness, the march toward an early death, and choose a radical procedure to change that course. Bariatric surgeries are not without risk, and don’t always work, but the odds of survival improve dramatically when the surgery is successful. Assuming the patient can continue the lifestyle changes necessary to support their good health.

See the pattern?

It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to say I have a disease risk and I don’t want to succumb to it.

It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to have a radical surgery to prevent an early death.

It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to face your mortality, discard the wishful thinking, realistically assess the ability of modern medicine to save you, and move forward with a life-altering (and life-affirming) option.

It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to change your lifestyle and not look back.

There isn’t a right decision here. The right decision is the one that works best for the individual patient, one they can adjust to and live with, one that fits into their lifestyle, one that moves them farther away from deadly illness.

I support Angelina Jolie and her surgery decision to save her life. No hindsight, only moving forward.

I support those of you who have bariatric surgery to save your lives. No hindsight, only moving forward.

There are no guarantees. Angelina may still need medical treatment for cancer, and bariatric surgery patients may still need medical treatment for obesity. To the scientists of the world, keep up the great research. To the doctors of the world, stay educated and open to possibility. To the patients of the world (and that is all of us), be proud of your courage, regardless of your decision, and stay vigilant.

That’s the only guarantee I have for you.

Sara Stein is an integrative and bariatric psychiatrist and functional medicine physician at Stein Wellness Center and can be reached on Twitter and Facebook.  She is the author of Obese from the Heart.

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