Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Prophylactic Mastectomy: Don't Judge Me

Just look at it a while...
By now, everyone's heard about Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic mastectomy due to her BRCA 1 genetic status. And before that, Giuliana Rancic, and before that, Kristina Applegate. A whole host of beautiful young women who faced difficult choices and made a brave decision. Their career successes had been bolstered in no small part by their sex appeal. So going public with their mastectomies - their second brave decision - exposed them to risks they didn’t have to take. Hats off to them for valuing the opportunity to educate other women more than their own careers and egos.
Portrait in the "1850s House"
State Museum on Jackson Square

Then along came Melissa Etheridge, heroine to so many breast cancer survivors and writer/singer of the inspiring, tear-jerking, goose bump-inducing ballad played at many a breast cancer fundraising event, “I Run for Life.” She called Jolie’s prophylactic surgery, “the most fearful choice you could make when confronting anything with cancer,” adding that Jolie could just have changed her diet to prevent cancer. Say what?! Jolie’s husband countered that he found the decision “empowering instead of scary…the exact opposite of fear.” A couple of days ago, Etheridge responded, “Your own personal health is your own personal choice, all the way down the line.” Great. But it doesn’t sound like she’s budged from her original judgmental attitude.

The fact that Etheridge is a breast cancer survivor makes it especially hard to understand. I’m not judging her, mind you  :-) I just don’t get it. You’d think she’d walked enough in the other man’s moccasins - maybe not Jolie’s size exactly, but close enough. You’d think she’d understand that when dealing with the breast cancer beast, everyone has a right to do what they feel they need to do without being judged.

If  you were mauled by a grizzly bear - or saw your own mother in its teeth - is it really so hard to understand that you wouldn’t ever want to be in grizzly territory again? Even if your chances of ever seeing another bear might be only 10 percent (it was something like 30% in my particular case), it would be understandable, but especially so if you’re like Jolie, with a grizzly bear camping by your front door.

It comes down to a game of probabilities I’d rather not play - I don’t like casinos. Because my type of cancer was not well understood, I didn’t have reliable statistics to work with, like Jolie had. And while I would never trade my largely unknown brand of breast cancer for Jolie’s, I do envy the knowledge-base BRCA pre-vivors have to judge their risk prior to making the difficult decision. For me, Jolie’s choice was a no-brainer. The numbers were hideously against her. Eighty-seven percent chance of a highly aggressive form of breast cancer. Change my diet, as Etheridge suggests, then deal me the cards? Hell no! Damn the torpedoes!

One piece of information I did have, that Jolie didn’t, was what it felt like to hear, “You have breast cancer.” No one should ever have to hear those words once, let alone a second or third time. Making it out of that grizzly’s mouth alive once was darned lucky. More luck than I probably deserved in one lifetime. I’m taking my winnings and going home, thank you. Also, I’d already gone through one mastectomy - and a great reconstruction - several years prior to the prophylactic one. I knew that with my recon surgeon, disfigurement would not be in my cards. I doubt she felt so sure.

Yep, prophylactic mastectomy is all over the news these days. Google “prophylactic,” and “mastectomy” appears as the second search word. I’m glad it’s in the spotlight. When my great aunt Alice was diagnosed and underwent a mastectomy back in the 1960s, it was literally only whispered about in my family. These days we can talk about almost anything. And maybe, someday, people won’t be so judgmental.


  1. I'll bet Angelina Jolie was already eating a healthy diet. She still had that 87% chance of getting breast cancer and now it's significantly lower since her mastectomies. Thanks, Eve, for sharing the blog.