I have always been one of Angelina Jolie’s biggest fans. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw fit to reward her 1999 performance in Girl Interrupted with an Oscar, but I wasn’t well and truly smitten until the second Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie was released in 2003. In that film, Jolie, who performs her own stunts, is seen galloping on a dark horse while spinning a heavy shotgun from side to side to shoot alternating targets. And she is riding sidesaddle. In the Lara Croft movies, she is the epitome of a strong, athletic, intelligent and self-assured woman. It may not seem like much, but I granted Miss Jolie a high honor indeed; in 2004 I named a dark, agile and fast deerhound puppy after her, the soon to be champion Caerwicce’s Lady Croft, a.k.a. “Angelina.”
In the years that followed the Lara Croft movies, Angelina Jolie went on to surprise her public in more ways than one. The girl who initially achieved notoriety for wearing a vial of her second husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood gained a different type of fame when she adopted a Cambodian child, and subsequently became a respected ambassador for the United Nations. She has become well-known for her humanitarian efforts, devoting as much time to improving the lives of refugee children as she does to her own career. Recently, she has added the titles of author, director, and Mrs. Brad Pitt to an already impressive resume.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all came two years ago, when she went public in the New York Times with the revelation that she was positive for the breast cancer gene BRCA1. In a moving statement, she wrote of her difficult decision, at age 37, to undergo bilateral prophylactic mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries in the hope of staving off the cancers that took her mother, her grandmother and her aunt. She was clear and concise, reasonable and dispassionate in her account. Not only did she raise awareness of the heritable form of breast cancer, she gave courage to all women facing the challenge of a mastectomy. If one of the world’s most beautiful and sexy women could undergo such surgery in the glare of the celebrity spotlight and come out looking stronger and even more beautiful, so could some of the rest of us.
She has done it again. In a New York Times article entitled “Diary of a Surgery,” she reveals that she has recently undergone removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes to prevent ovarian cancer, the disease that killed her mother. She describes precisely the terror she felt when informed that some recent blood tests were equivocal, the dreadful anticipation of the results of a PET/CT scan and the realization that now, at age 39, she has entered menopause. But she also describes the relief she felt once she had made a decision to go ahead with the preventive surgery: “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer’.”
There’s bravery, and then there’s true courage and grit. It’s one thing to perform gymnastics while swinging from the rafters of the Croft estate, or to shoot a rifle off the back of a galloping horse. It’s quite another to write clearly and objectively the story of being diagnosed with a genetic mutation, and of the careful informed decisions she made to minimize her risks, while at the same time admitting that her decisions were not necessarily the right ones for everyone. As Angelina says, “Knowledge is power.” We owe her thanks for sharing hers with us.
Miranda Fielding is a radiation oncologist who blogs at The Crab Diaries.