When American actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy, I was amazed at the support she received and sad that the opinions of those who disagreed were mostly disregarded.
I don’t understand why Angelina Jolie felt that she needed to have a double mastectomy. Yes, she carries the hereditary BRCA1 gene, which she says increases her risk of breast cancer by 87%. However, this extremely high risk is based on old studies with more recent research finding that the risk of getting breast cancer for an average woman with BRCA1 is 65 percent. This is still a significant risk but I wonder why Jolie couldn’t just be monitored with mammography and MRI scans and proceed to surgery if a cancer develops.
Most women have access to diagnostic testing and yet American women are undergoing preventative mastectomies at an alarming rate-with breast cancer experts believing that many of these women undergoing the surgery are doing this out of fear, not due to real risk. This preemptive ridding of breasts that may or may not become cancerous is horrific.
On the radio this morning I heard a woman explaining that because her family were scientists, she had been taught to back up her opinions with data. Angelina Jolie had made her significant decision based on research data that found that she was very likely to succumb to cancer. Even so I believe her decision to be a mistake. I am not basing my feelings on scientific research but on how I feel about my body. I wouldn’t want to have my breasts removed unless I had the cancer and only then as a last resort.
My feelings about my body are probably unusual but then I have always felt this way with my beliefs reinforced by my study of radical feminism. In Gyn Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, author Mary Daly explains that this willingness to mutilate our bodies arises out of ‘gynocidal intent of androcracy’ which is ‘endemic to patriarchy and its processions’. One of the ways that patriarchy achieves the prepossession of women is ‘preoccupation’. Women are anxious about the chance of breast cancer and subject themselves to mammograms and gene testing and in this process are preoccupied. We see this willingness to mutilate our bodies in many areas of women’s health ‘care’. For example, hysterectomy is the most popular elective surgery for women in the world. In Australia around 35,000 hysterectomies are performed each year and around one in four New Zealand women will have had a hysterectomy by the age of 50. In Canada, nearly 40% of women over 60 have had a hysterectomy and in the UK, around 100,000 hysterectomies are performed every year. Around 620,000 hysterectomies are performed in the United States each year and yet only around 25% of these hysterectomies have a medical necessity.
Decisions such as Angelina Jolie’s to have a double mastectomy just in case, reveal our unfortunate disconnect from our place in the web of life. We cannot control everything in our lives. Jolie has had a double mastectomy, just in case. She wants to live and has reassured her children that she will be around to care for them. But as my quick-witted friend quipped: ‘Let’s hope she doesn’t go out and get hit by a bus’ or words to that effect.
Who profits from this fear of breast cancer that is now further entrenched as a result of Jolie’s surgery and revelation? In revealing her double mastectomy, Angelina Jolie has raised awareness about genetic testing for breast-cancer markers causing anxious women to seek BRCA1 gene testing procedures which are patented by a for-profit corporation called “Myriad Genetics.” Myriad Genetics holds the patent on the test that determined the chances that Jolie had the chance of developing breast cancer, as well as the genes themselves. Not surprisingly shares in the Cancer test developer Myriad Genetics have just risen to a three-year high and because of this patent, BRCA1 tests can cost $3,000 – $4,000 each.
Then there is the messy business of breast implantation which necessitates more surgery with the risk that such implants can rupture, or develop leaks. And they are not a permanent solution. They need to be replaced periodically. Last week I was watching ABC’s 7.30 program and a segment called The Aussie Mum who knows Angelina Jolie’s pain. “I went and had my skin checked the other day for a mole and I had to take off my top,” said the Aussie Mum. “And the doctor was like, Hey! Wow! What have you had – they look amazing!”
How can the real thing compete!
Angelina’s preoccupation has huge ramifications for women worldwide and what it is to be a woman.