An Unimaginable Choice

Yes, I’m a man, ergo my first reaction was to wonder whether I should have a brief moment of silence for the loss of a true God-given treasure to all of humanity. Thankfully, though, that only lasted a second, and then I remembered my mother and what she went through only a couple of years ago, and I considered just the kind of value our culture places on a woman’s breasts, particularly a celebrity’s — and that’s why I now stand in awe of what Angelina Jolie did.

Chances are by now you know, thanks to an incredibly moving op-ed she wrote for today’s New York Times, that Jolie recently underwent an elective double mastectomy. The reason for the surgery, as she ably describes, is that she carries a faulty gene known as BRCA1, which sharply increases her risk of developing breast cancer. What kind of danger has she been in all this time? an 87-percent chance of being diagnosed. It’s daunting and chilling to hear it put so simply: Angelina Jolie, one of the world’s most famous and most beautiful women, was almost certainly going to make headlines at some point in her life for having to face down one of the world’s most frightening killers of women. And so, in order to prevent that from happening, she made a decision I can’t even imagine. She had both of her breasts removed.

Yes, we treat a woman’s breasts as a kind of currency in our culture, but that’s multiplied exponentially when we’re talking about an actress, singer, or any other sort of celebrity. There’s simply no denying that while her abilities as an actor are extraordinary and should never be diminished, Angelina Jolie’s fame came not simply from those abilities but from her face, her body, her sexuality. Maybe that’s not what she wanted to be known for, but that’s the way it worked. I’m not exactly breaking any new ground — and I certainly don’t mean to take a sexist or merely flippant tone — but Jolie’s breasts have been an object of lust for men everywhere since she first broke big with 1998’s Gia. There’s no doubt that Jolie understands this, that her body has been, in the eyes of the vultures in Hollywood, public property and something that has the ability to sell as many tickets as her clout as an Oscar-winner.

But while people may have reveled in looking at her breasts — making her the subject of both desire and jealousy — and Hollywood may have believed them to have price tags attached, nobody but Angelina Jolie was going to have to stare down death for the sake of them as they’ve existed all this time. And so she took what she believed was the only recourse she had, a decision I have no doubt was gut-wrenching to make. On the surface the debate may have seemed like one between her womanhood and her life, but as she alludes to in her op-ed, the courage it took to assume control of both her body and her future may be the most “womanly” thing she’s ever done.

A couple of years back, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy. Reading Angelina Jolie’s description of what she’s had to go through — the decision, the surgery, the reconstruction, which I know for a fact is excruciatingly painful, the initial recovery, even her own mother’s battle with cancer — it all brought back memories of watching what my mom had to go through, what I was there night and day for, trying to help her navigate. I know it ate her alive having to make that choice — the one that given her situation wasn’t really a choice — and then having to live with the results. And she’s in her late-60s. And she didn’t have considerations like the kind Jolie had. And Jolie made the decision preventatively. Again, it’s something I simply cannot imagine having the guts to do, even to potentially save my own life because there’s always the fact that that breast cancer is only “potential.”

My mother is alive today, thankfully, because removing her breast stopped the cancer that almost certainly would have taken her from us. If she had known in advance that there was even a chance she’d have to endure something that nearly killed her, I wonder if she would’ve made the decision that Angelina Jolie made years ago. My mother’s an incredibly strong woman, but I have no idea if she would have or could have gone through with it. I have no doubt, though, that Jolie’s family understands and is incredibly grateful for what she did. I’m sure the most important thing in their eyes is that she’s simply there. That she stays around and they don’t have to watch her try to fight off death. Her risk of developing breast cancer is now a mere 5-percent.

I’m sure her family thinks the surgery was worth it. I’m sure Angelina thinks that as well. Screw what anybody else thinks.