Late last night, or rather, early this morning, I was doing what I typically do when I am procrastinating. I reorganized the bookshelf by my bed, I considered folding laundry, I put my Elizabeth Taylor mask on my dog and myself, I obsessively refreshed twitter. I did anything except what I was supposed to be doing because what I was supposed to be doing was transcribing an interview, and that involves the specific horrors of not only listening to my own voice, but also being reminded of a terrible habit I have, which is thinking that my interview subject needs to be entertained by me, which means that I then have to listen to the awkward patter that I subject innocent people to and so, yes, I am the worst. I also always forget to ask real questions. Ugh. But so anyway, I turned to twitter to avoid my work.
And while reading Retta's Game of Thrones tweets was certainly entertaining enough, at a certain point, my twitter feed exploded with everyone who was still awake linking to Angelina Jolie's New York Times Op-Ed, wherein she revealed her decision to undergo a double mastectomy as a preventive measure against the cancer that killed her mother. In Jolie's editorial, titled "My Medical Choice," she explains, "My mother fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was...I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer."
Jolie goes on to explain that she underwent genetic testing, which determined that she carries the BRCA 1 gene, and that her "doctors estimated that [she] had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman." Her decision to undergo preventative surgery was one that she made in order to take control of a situation that makes many people feel powerless. Jolie notes that she does "not feel any less of a woman" and that she is "fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive" and who made it easier for her to go through the procedure. Jolie went public with this decision in an effort to "encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices." Jolie freely acknowledges that, due to her economic privileges, she has access to top medical care and every option that is currently available, but insists, "It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women."
The response to Jolie's article has been overwhelmingly positive, The New Yorker's Rebecca Mead writes, "Jolie’s medical decision says again what shouldn’t need re-saying: that a woman’s body is hers, that breasts are for something other than ogling, and that hard choices are made for strong reasons. Her decision to make her choice public is bold and brave and admirable. It is what celebrity is for." There are, obviously going to be some assholes in the crowd that will be, well, assholes. The Awl rounds up a few male reactions, including a tweet by "Political Director to Russell Simmons + Editor-In-Chief of Global Grind " Michael Skolnik, which reads, "love to Angelina, but if the cure to breast cancer is that woman have to get their breasts removed before they get cancer, we are in trouble." So, yeah. Assholes are going to be assholes. The important thing, though, is that people are talking. People are talking about a disease that, yes, people know about, but that still effects hundreds of thousands of women in America each year. If the example of Jolie, whose fame is in part due to her physicality, can empower other women to become better advocates for their own health, then an important precedent for the good effects that celebrity can have has been set.
Also in the Times today, is a profile of mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, who also shares personal information, in the stated service of public awareness and personal empowerment. In some ways, Quinn's story bears a strong resemblance to Jolie's. The profile begins: "The summer she turned 16, Christine C. Quinn’s world seemed to shatter. Her mother was dying of breast cancer that had spread to her bones. Almost every morning, the young Ms. Quinn woke her mother, bathed her, made her breakfast and gave her medication." The trauma of dealing with this at such a young age led Quinn into a decade-long struggle with bulimia (for which she eventually went to rehab), and later alcoholism. This article was written in conjunction with the fact that Quinn has a memoir coming out next month,“With Patience and Fortitude,” and, also, with the fact that Quinn is running for mayor.
Which, Quinn told the Times that she "believe[s] her disclosures would have no effect on the race for mayor," stating, “It feels like an oddly nonpolitical thing.” Quinn claims only to "hope that other people can follow her example of openness, and emphasized repeatedly that she does not want to be seen as a victim." On the surface, this is not so different from what Jolie's intentions were in her Op-Ed. And yet, when a public figure suddenly reveals so much about him or herself at a moment that can only be called opportune in terms of wanting media attention, it is hard not to be skeptical as to what the timing has to say about the reveal, and what is really hoped to be gained—awareness or publicity. Within the Times' profile, it is even posited that the reason Quinn is doing this media blitz is in an effort to “try to soften her often rough-edged political image,” which took a blow following several unflattering profiles that showcased her temper and combatitiveness. Whatever the reason, though, it is hard not to have sympathy for someone who went through the struggles that Quinn did over the course of her life. Sympathy, however, should not translate into votes, which I have to hope any New York City voter with half-a-brain should realize. (Vote Sal Albanese, you guys! As Henry Stewart says, ""he's right on all the issues, by which I mean he's left on all the issues.")
If Quinn's story resonates with anyone reading it, and encourages him or her to seek help, than it should be deemed a success. However, the generosity with which Jolie shared her decision, and the light it sheds on the fact that far too many women do not have access to the same medical options (one of the more troubling aspects of Jolie's piece was learning the fact that, of the 458,000 women breast cancer kills each year, most live "in low- and middle-income countries") are really something to be lauded. And while public figures are frequently derided for over-sharing aspects of their personal lives, I can't think of a better reason to allow the public a window into one of the most private, but important decisions a person can make—the decision to take control of your own health. Which is all to say, I'm really glad I put down the Elizabeth Taylor mask in order to read Jolie's story.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen