It was five years ago now, in October of 2008, that I wrote a story about preventive (also known as prophylactic) mastectomies for Chatelaine magazine, a sister magazine to Today’s Parent. It’s the same procedure that Angelina Jolie wrote about today in the op-ed pages of The New York Times. It was one of my most memorable assignments: I talked to so many women about one of the most personal decisions they’ve ever had to make.
Most of these women had not experienced breast cancer, or any kind of cancer, themselves. But all of them had seen the disease take the lives of loved ones, and that fear — that cancer would take hold of their own life story — was too hard to shake. Over the course of my interviews, I realized that undergoing this kind of elective surgery was less about medical risk, and more about regaining control. In her article, Jolie wrote: “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” The key word there is choice: She wanted to do something proactive for her health, and for her kids, in the face of an unpredictable disease.
Some of the doctors I interviewed when researching the story called preventive mastectomy “barbaric,” and strongly discouraged women from removing a perfectly healthy body part, which I found incredibly interesting. (I hadn’t known the procedure was controversial within the medical community.) But I’d argue that even though most of the preventive mastectomy patients I spoke to weren’t sick with cancer, they still couldn’t live a normal and healthy life, free of anxiety. They knew about their genetic disposition, and every regular checkup and mammogram renewed those fears. They couldn’t move on until they DID something about it.
And it really wasn’t about their breasts — it was about so much more than that. The threat of disease influenced so many of their plans: whether to have kids, whether to breastfeed, whether to get that Master’s degree, whether to buy that house. They told me about watching their own mothers and aunts struggle with the disease; they told me about rejoining the dating scene post-mastectomy; they told me about the pain of the “expanders” used to prepare breasts before the implants are inserted; they told me about sex with their husbands after they’d had reconstructive surgery. They shared so much. I spoke with one woman, barely 30, who said she’d never thought she’d live that long, and I spoke with another awesome woman (a mom of two) who threw a kind of “goodbye and good riddance” party for her boobs. What a strong, resilient group of ladies.
All this to say, kudos to Angelina Jolie for bringing attention to the disease, and to all the women who’ve grappled with this decision.
Visit Chatelaine for their response to Jolie’s double mastectomy.