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The Angelina Jolie Pitt Factor

Best of all, Jolie Pitt acknowledges how difficult it is to make decisions such as these. Heaven knows that I know this, both personally as a patient and professionally as a nurse.
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Last night, I received an email alert from the New York Times with an article entitled, "Angelina Jolie Pitt: Diary of a Surgery." My first thought was, "Here we go again." As you may recall (who in the world doesn't), two years ago, Angelina Jolie (pre-Pitt) underwent a "preventative" double mastectomy.

Please allow me to recap a bit: After her original op-ed disclosure I had a bit of a (okay, a big!) problem with her article, beginning with the fact that her use of the word "prevention" in association with breast cancer was incorrect. Prevention simply cannot accurately be used in the same sentence with breast cancer. The truth of the matter is that -- unfortunately -- at this time no one knows specifically how to "prevent" cancer. All we know now is how to reduce the risk that a person will get cancer, but no intervention is fully protective against acquiring the disease. So, her op-ed piece was quite misleading and led many people to make choices "because that's what Angelina Jolie did." Sigh.

Now, there were several silver linings of Angelina Jolie's original public disclosure. First, it encouraged people (men, too! I have a friend whose dad died of FBC) to look into their family history. This is so so so important! Additionally, she didn't make sweeping generalizations or "should"on anyone. I was also inspired by the fact that one of the most beautiful women in the world bravely and publicly declared that her breasts do not define her; her power over her health and her body had trumped her dependence on a body part to express her femininity. "I do not feel any less of a woman," she declared. "I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."

Okay, so fast forward to today's "Diary of a Surgery" piece. I actually cringed when I saw this. You see, after having had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed (along with my uterus and cervix) to decrease my risk of developing a breast cancer recurrence or the possibility of developing ovarian cancer, I didn't want her "speaking" for me. The silver lining is that this article was SO. MUCH. BETTER. than the first one! In it, she is articulate, practical, sensitive, personal, and -- best of all! -- accurate. For example:

I did not do this solely because I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, and I want other women to hear this. A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery. I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options. Some women take birth control pills or rely on alternative medicines combined with frequent checks. There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally.

Additionally, she fully recognizes that it isn't possible to remove all risk -- because it just isn't possible. However, there ARE many things that we former breast cancer patients and those who are at high risk for developing the disease can do to help reduce our risk of a diagnosis, beginning with the addition of a healthy diet and exercise to our lives and decreasing (or better yet, eliminating) alcohol.

Best of all, Jolie Pitt acknowledges how difficult it is to make decisions such as these. Heaven knows that I know this, both personally as a patient and professionally as a nurse. However, the ultimate silver lining is that, as Jolie Pitt said:

... 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. Knowledge is power.

What I hope comes from this is that a public dialogue is started -- one that focuses on health literacy and patient advocacy.

Hollye Jacobs, RN, MS, MSW is a speaker, former breast cancer patient and New York Times bestselling author of The Silver Lining: A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer. She is also an award-winning author of The Silver Pen blog.You may email her at or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.