When celebrities share secrets, good things happen

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Angelina Jolie, right, and actor Brad Pitt are seen at the 84th Academy Awards in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, file)

 

Last Tuesday, Angelina Jolie made public the fact that she elected to undergo a double mastectomy, at the age of 37. This was her attempt to lower her risk of breast cancer, given the fact that she carries “the breast cancer gene.” She hopes to encourage other women to consider the potentially life-saving procedure for themselves. No doubt, other women will now come forward. A new list of celebrity names will coalesce.

What is particularly remarkable about the public statement made by Angelina Jolie is that she is a young, beautiful, sex symbol. She risks her career by changing her image in this way. To medicalize her breasts in the public’s perception is potentially to de-sexualize them. The bodily care of cancer prevention is far from the glamorous dream world that Hollywood sells.

Clearly, Jolie has chosen the high moral ground of trying to save lives by publicizing the procedure and stating that she feels as beautiful as ever. We should be grateful for her straightforward and courageous statement.

Indeed, we should be grateful for all — celebrities or not –who have driven social change by publicly outing themselves. It is arguable that we might not have had as much support for abortion reform, or addiction treatment, or HIV-AIDS research, or marriage equality, without them. Destigmatizing cancer prevention surgery will happen more quickly if celebrities and others get publicly vocal about their personal health choices.

Importantly, abortion and addiction and HIV-AIDS and love are different issues from preventative mastectomy. Abortion is a difficult but fundamentally ordinary choice in an untenable situation. Addiction is a disease that is relatively well understood, even if it is still difficult to treat. HIV-AIDS is a global pandemic that is by now well known. Marriage equality is a function of health and happiness in the first place.

But the phenomenon of breast cancer still eludes scientists. We still do not know how to prevent it or reliably cure it, save perhaps by surgically removing a vulnerable organ.

Furthermore, it seems that a lot of our current ideas about it are not even correct. While the public receives the message that getting regular mammograms is an effective preventive strategy, it has recently been reported that such screenings turn out to be only minimally effective in lowering the morbidity of the disease. As Peggy Orenstein wrote in the New York Times, our war against cancer has been a “feel-good war.”

In fact, given the incidence of false positives, and of cancers that do not actually need to be treated, such screenings can cause harm. According to a survey of 30 years of screening published in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 2012, as cited by Orenstein, “mammography’s impact is decidedly mixed: it does reduce, by a small percentage, the number of women who are told they have late-stage cancer, but it is far more likely to result in over diagnosis and unnecessary treatment, including surgery, weeks of radiation and potentially toxic drugs.”

When a celebrity such as Angelina Jolie makes such a generous and powerful intervention, it is right for the world to pay attention. But the list needs to grow longer, as well, of those demanding greatly increased support for primary cancer research and stricter environmental controls on the toxic substances we eat and breathe. Cancer needs a social movement demanding change.

Otherwise, no matter how many celebrities and others come courageously forward, and how well the world adapts to preventive mastectomy, it will not be enough.

Editor’s note: Laura Wexler is Professor and former Chair of the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at Yale and a fellow of the Op-Ed Project’s Public Voices Fellowship Program. She is co-author of “Pregnant Pictures”, a book about photographic images of the pregnant body.

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