Traditional and social media spheres lit up with conversation after Angelina Jolie announced this week that she underwent a double-mastectomy and reconstruction surgery to preempt the likelihood of breast cancer.
In a May 13 Op-Ed for the New York Times, the actress and activist opened up about her decision, saying she wanted to be there for her children.
“They have asked if the same could happen to me,” Jolie wrote, referring to her mother’s death from breast cancer. “I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a ‘faulty’ gene.”
The defective version of the BRCA1 gene that Jolie carries is rare, affecting an estimated 5 percent of women. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent statistical risk of getting breast cancer. Jolie’s doctors estimated her chance of breast cancer was 87 percent and her risk of ovarian cancer 50 percent.
Jolie’s decision to have the surgery and go public about it was received with a wave of public praise. Brad Pitt and his mother have both given statements of support, as have cancer foundations and cancer prevention specialists.
Women who have tested positive for a defective BRCA1 gene say they understand the anxiety that living with that knowledge creates.
“My mother’s mother died of breast cancer at 51, my mother was diagnosed at 44 and had a double-masectomy,” a poster commented on BlogHer, an online content curating site focused on women’s issues. “I feel like a ticking time bomb. … I’m glad Jolie is going public.”
“Thank you, Angelina,” writer Dvora Koelling said in a tribute on BlogHer. “The first thing I thought, after hearing the news story about her elective double-mastectomy, was ‘if she can do it, I can do it.’”
Brooke Kirschenbaum, a thirty-year-old Salt Lake City hair stylist, has been quietly weighing the pros and cons of this same surgery decision. Six weeks ago, Kirschenbaum went ahead and scheduled the surgery, prepared her family and told her clients she would be undergoing the double-masectomy due to the outcome of her BRCA1 gene tests.
“Some of my friends and extended family … thought my decision was very radical,” Kirschenbaum said. “They were talking to me about waiting to see if I get cancer to have surgery and advising me instead to limit my exposure to toxins – there truly wasn’t an understanding of what this diagnosis means.”
But now, the flood of news surrounding Jolie’s announcement is helping Kirschenbaum talk to her friends and clients.
“I love that Angelina is talking about wanting to be there for her kids,” the young mother said. “They call you a ‘pre-vivor’ if you do the surgery before you get the cancer. I want to be there for my two year-old son. I find it very liberating to take control of it.”
Kirschenbaum explained that not going ahead with the surgery would mean a round of testing and diagnostic procedures every six months including mammograms, blood tests, physical examinations and breast MRIs. In some cases, the tests themselves expose a woman to more radiation, which further increases the risk of cancer.
“With my genetic heritage, you’re supposed to start screening at 25 years-old,” she said. “I waited until I was 29 …. and at the time of my first blood test and my first mammogram I got about the worst news possible.”
Kirschenbaum’s doctors estimated that, without surgery, her cancer risk is 68 percent and going up at the rate of one percent per year for the next several years. If she develops even a small tumor that could be treated as a lumpectomy, her chance of a second occurrence within two years is 99 percent.
“This mutation has memory,” she said.
The stress, Kirschenbaum said, just isn’t worth it.
“There is no way I want to take chances like that when I can improve my cancer risk to somewhere between two and five percent. Besides, it is way too much stress to go through a scare every six months wondering if a lump is going to be cancer this time.””
Editor’s Note: The Universe will be following Kirschenbaum’s surgery in the coming weeks.