Brave to the Bone – for The Big Smoke

Remember back in May last year when Angelina Jolie was in all the newspapers?

Not for being sighted in Byron Bay or at Luna Park with her hordes of children and bodyguards, but because of the shock the world felt upon hearing she’d had her breasts removed?

I remember it well because the publication of her New York Times Op-Ed—My Medical Choice—coincided with a close friend of mine being diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time I avoided commenting on it, because I didn’t know how much of my reaction to Jolie was being emotionally driven by concern for my mate. But we’re almost a year down the road now and my initial feelings remain.

Jolie gave us an account of her personal journey, a journey that appears to have been positive. She was widely, and rightfully, praised for her decision, but since then she has become a beacon of bravery, the poster girl for mastectomies, and frankly it’s got my goat.

I can’t help but wonder – if she had been anyone other than the sex symbol of the last decade, would it have received such wide coverage? One article actually referred to her as courageous purely because of the risk it posed to a career based on sex appeal. There was a sense of disbelief that this could have happened to her, that she was too young and beautiful to be faced with the decision. Of course she was, but the same can be said of all women facing mastectomy. You don’t suddenly get to an age or stage in life where mastectomy isn’t traumatic, and facing it when you have no other option is no less inspiring. Even my friend’s surgeon seemed caught up in it, describing the operation as “the Angelina”though the scenarios couldn’t be more different.

But mastectomies, like the boobs they’re designed to remove, come in different shapes and sizes, and Jolie’s experience appears to be the fairytale version.

There is no comparison between prophylactic (preventative) mastectomy, and mastectomy as treatment for cancer. A bilateral mastectomy, the process leading up to it, and the aftermath, is one of the most confronting things I have witnessed. Every stage from the discovery of a tumour through to recovery is painful and distressing, and at worst dehumanising. Technology hasn’t found a way to make the process quick or painless, but if you want to survive you don’t have many options. To put Jolie’s surgery and story in with breast cancer patients and survivors is to diminish what these women go through.

The clue is in the title of her piece, ‘My Medical Choice’—for Jolie, it was a choice. Presented with overwhelming medical data, she and her doctors formed a plan of attack. She had her breasts removed in a controlled and safe manner that allowed her to keep her nipples, her looks, and her life intact. Four months later she was walking the red carpet, healed and healthy. To say she was courageous and strong for being so positive in the days after surgery…

Well, why wouldn’t she be?

She didn’t have cancer.

But four months after an actual breast cancer diagnosis, a patient is maybe halfway through chemotherapy and feeling like crap, missing hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, in constant pain from the expanders that must be inserted into the pectoral muscle until breast reconstruction can begin, their life on standby as they cope with debilitating nausea, fatigue and depression; with a future that involves more surgery, possible radiotherapy, huge financial burden and the ever-present fear of cancer returning. May as well keep that red carpet rolled up for a little while yet.

Maybe it’s a simple case of semantics? Angelina Jolie is an excellent example to women who carry the BRCA1 & BRCA2 genes of how being responsible and proactive with your health can result in a positive outcome, and I am genuinely pleased her story has led to an increase in the rate of women being checked for the disease.

But to call her brave?

I’ll save that for the gal-pal I know who’s gone through surgery and gruelling chemotherapy; who manages to stay strong despite what’s still ahead; who refuses to be a victim; and who continues to find humour in the situation, wryly observing that it was all just a case of “getting something off her chest”.

Angelina Jolie might have the world’s admiration, but my mate’s got mine.

This article first appeared in The Big Smoke:
Brave to the Bone – for The Big Smoke

From The New Yorker
From The New Yorker

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