A woman’s mother dies at age 56. A blood test is done. The woman finds out she has a genetic pre-disposition to cancer. She takes what action she thinks she needs to take. A familiar story repeated over and over again every day. I’ve met many women who have made this choice. While not “normal”, it is a familiar situation. These women’s difficult choices go unheralded. But not Angelina. She has a voice and she’s not afraid to use it.
I am of two minds about Ms. Jolie’s announcement. Unlike double mastectomies for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which isn’t necessarily a cancer and can be treated with a lumpectomy, BRCA1 gene mutations can’t be treated any other way. Unless I hear differently from my breast surgeon friends, I’d say she probably did the right thing. Her decision to talk about it is probably encouraging to women who have or will have to make that choice. It raises awareness of the gene mutation. It puts breast cancer on the front page of the New York Times. Again.
Here’s my problem: double mastectomy is not a benign procedure. Ms. Jolie seems to have had a remarkably easy time of it. Yes, she says she was right back to her normal life soon after, but since Jolie’s life is not normal that’s hard to generalize. The truth is there is significant pain involved, a long period of waiting while the tissue expanders do their work, then there’s further procedures for the implants, which can develop capsules around them, or rupture, or get infected. If Angelina had chosen breast reconstructive surgery there would be the risk of the flap losing blood flow, multiple drains, overnight stays in recovery rooms or ICUs, and many many surgeries for revision, nipple creation, etc. And the results are not always beautiful. I understand that it is not Ms. Jolie’s role to scare people, but to encourage them. I would just warn against falsely rosy expectations.
I am not trying to discourage double mastectomy. Sometimes it is necessary. I do think that people who have extraordinary access to public attention must pay extraordinary attention to what they say. I wish Angelina all the best for a complete, and beautiful, recovery.
Shirie Leng is an anesthesiologist who blogs at medicine for real.