I don't think anyone would argue that Angelina Jolie is a singular woman. Her strikingly unique features, her seering expressions, her groundbreaking humanitarianism. Angelina Jolie--is there any other? photo credit: NYT
But in light of her revelation of her double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer given her rare genetic background, I want to echo this again: Angelina Jolie is a singular woman.
The procedure she elected to have took tremendous courage. It also took specialists and significant time and a loving companion, the support of family and friends. Angelina Jolie speaks of the procedure as "a scene out of a science-fiction film." She goes on to say, "But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life."
This was not the experience of my stepmother who underwent a mastectomy this past year after a battery of tests and lumpectomies found that the removal of a breast would be her best course of action in order to live cancer-free.
Days after surgery, Julie did not, could not return to normal life. Sleep came with great pains and difficulty. She could not pick up her beloved dogs. She could do little but try to lie or sit still so as not to agitate the wounds.
Julie had to take months off work. During that time, she was not living off film revenues or Lara Croft royalties. She did not have Brad Pitt or nurses at home. She had my dad, in his sixties, who still works full-time. Julie had lost both of her own parents to cancer years earlier.
Angelina Jolie writes, "Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of." Indeed. We should not fear what we can control. And how many of us can control our risks of any disease, particularly when health insurance premiums are rising and coverage seems to be increasingly more stringent. WFAA in Dallas reports that BRCA gene screening analysis costs about $3,000. Many insurance companies will cover the procedure, but only for patients who exhibit certain risk factors. I have to believe that the question of whether or not she would be covered was not even a trifling thought for Angelina Jolie, whereas it surely is for many women, both in this country and around the world.
The NYT Magazine cover story last week probed why we are not winning the battle against breast cancer, given the omnipresence of the "pink campaign." Almost 40,000 women and 400 men die every year of breast cancer in the U.S. An entire baseball stadium, wiped out.
The gravity of this disease pulls me down to a place that I don't like to dwell. Thinking about losing my stepmom, thinking about what would happen to my dad, thinking about all the other women I love who may fight this battle and be defeated.
And then, in that place, I think how Angelina Jolie is like any other woman, and especially like any other mother. We may not all have six children over whom we have gone to the ends of the earth or the ends of the laboring table to bring home. But we can understand the ache of not getting to spend as long as possible with our children. We can understand what it would be like to not be able to properly hug them for months, not to be able to bend and kiss their hurts or lift them up and place them on the top bunk.
Don't even talk to me about Brad Pitt's sacrifice in all this. Has anyone asked Angelina Jolie what it was like to experience the pains of having her attributes modified, removed, reconstructed to something less recognizable? As women our identities are irrevocably tied up with what makes us a singularly woman: the curves of our bodies, our outward beauty. Any modification thereof may make us feel less than, even if our self-knowledge reminds us that we are more than just this.
I am thankful for Angelina Jolie and Julie and for all the men and women, surgeons, chemo and radiation technicians, supporters and philanthropists who battle against breast cancer. Each story is singular in its truth, each one a part of a larger tapestry of courage.