In a vulnerable op-ed piece for The New York Times, Angelina Jolie Pitt updated readers on her health journey. In addition to having a double mastectomy in 2013, Jolie Pitt elected to have a second preventive surgery after undergoing tests that allow healthcare professionals to link DNA to other cancer-related conditions such as Lynch syndrome.
As a result, Jolie Pitt chose to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.
“A simple blood test had revealed that I carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene,” Jolie Pitt wrote. “It gave me an estimated 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.” After losing her mother, grandmother, and aunt to cancer, Jolie Pitt was prepared to take the necessary steps to grow old with her husband and children.
Jolie Pitt’s openness about her health history and her decision to tackle it proactively has been a source of courage for women around the world. Here are three things her journey bravely models for us. Women can and should:
1. Own Their Health Decisions
Jolie Pitt’s resolution has highlighted the choice women make every day: pursue a life-changing surgery or manage the risk. She’s faced her health concerns with confidence and encouraged others to do the same. Rather than let life happen to her, Jolie Pitt has owned the tough decisions regarding her future.
Jolie Pitt believes dealing with genetic health issues is a part of life and shouldn’t be feared. After learning that a blood test revealed what could be early signs of ovarian cancer, Jolie Pitt immediately began to pursue next steps.
“The beautiful thing about such moments in life is that there is so much clarity,” Jolie Pitt wrote. “You know what you live for and what matters. It is polarizing, and it is peaceful.”
2. Educate Themselves
Jolie Pitt’s story empowers women to learn about their health history, research potential threats, and fully grasp what’s at stake: their life. Specifically, Jolie Pitt has encouraged women to understand their risk of gynecological cancers and to either seek help or rest easier knowing they’re at low risk.
Jolie Pitt admits her situation is rare. Only 2 percent of women have a family history that’s considered a strong risk, and the percentage of dangerous mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in the general population is negligible. However, the risk does increase for those diagnosed with breast cancer. In those cases, 10-15 percent of women carry a genetic mutation. For those younger than 60 who are diagnosed with “triple negative” breast cancer, the chances increase to 9-28 percent. International guidelines recommend that these women be referred for genetic testing and counseling, and any woman who has a family history of ovarian cancer is recommended to have the test done, too.
In 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also suggested that women who have family members with ovarian, breast, peritoneal, or fallopian tube cancer be evaluated to see whether they have a harmful genetic mutation in one of the BRCA genes.
These are things women need to know, and Jolie Pitt is a model for education and preparedness.
Jolie Pitt and her doctors agreed that having surgery was the best option for her. Not only did she carry the BRCA gene, but three women in her family had also died from cancer. Jolie Pitt’s doctors indicated that there was wisdom in her having the surgery 10 years prior to the earliest onset of the disease in her family. So when the risk became clear, Jolie Pitt was armed with the necessary information to make a quick decision.
3. Take Action
The coverage of Jolie Pitt’s decision has impacted how people see preventive surgery. Her choice might not be the right one for everyone, but it does demonstrate a bias to action. Still, Jolie Pitt wants women to know that she didn’t remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes simply because she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation.
“A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery,” Jolie Pitt wrote. She believes that there are many other possibilities that, combined with frequent checkups, can reduce the risk of cancer. “The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally.”
Jolie Pitt models that it’s important to take charge if you’re concerned. There are tests available to determine whether women are at high risk, and a genetic counselor can act as a guide throughout the process.
“It is not easy to make these decisions,” Jolie Pitt wrote. “But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options, and make choices that are right for you.”