ICBioethics Blog 

Thoughts about Angelina Jolie

Written by: Leah Jeunnette, Ph.D.(c)

One of the hottest topics over the past week has been the recently published article about Angelina Jolie regarding her decision to undergo a double mastectomy.

You can read the original article here

This article written by Jolie explains her mindset, decision, risks, and process of undergoing a preventative double mastectomy. After seeing her mother battle cancer for over 10 years, and examining her own risks of having cancer, Jolie made the decision to remove her breasts to reduce her risk of breast cancer to under 5%. She has the support of her family and made her decision specifically with her children in mind. Jolie is not the first woman to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, nor is she the last. However, she is a high profile actress, director, and advocate. I believe what makes this discussion interesting is that she did the entire procedure without the media’s knowledge, and that she is a beautiful woman, who is often seen as a sex symbol.

Cancer, sex, Hollywood all have an interesting dynamic. Sex sells in Hollywood and often (whether we agree with it or not), women are treated as sex symbols many times with an emphasis on the women’s breast. There is often that correlation whether intentional or not. Cancer and Hollywood also have an interesting dynamic. It provides plot lines on television shows (see NBC’s Parenthood) to the basis for television shows (Showtime’s The Big C) and movies (see 50/50). Each of these examples is done differently, focusing on different types of cancers, different approaches to story telling (dramatic or comedic or both). However, there is no correlation between sex and cancer. Even in everyday life, there is really no correlation between them. Cancer isn’t sexy; sex doesn’t involve cancer. So Angelina Jolie’s decision to talk about her medical decision publicly brings up this discussion yet again. Her double mastectomy in no way makes her less sexy or less of a woman. It shouldn’t change the way the public views her. Thankfully, the media and public seem to be taking the approach to applaud her for her bravery in having the procedure and going public about it.

I believe one of the pieces to the discussion that is being glossed over is in the title of the article, My Medical Decision. The discussion of decision is being passed over. As an ethicist, this is the first thing that came to mind when I read the article. This decision is a part of the principle of autonomy. Jolie used to right to seek information concerning her own health; she asserted her right to have privacy and confidentiality; she acted according to her right to seek preventative treatment. It is important to emphasize that her decision was hers along with her healthcare professionals, and her family. It was specific to her genetic information, her family history, her current health, and her personal values. While Jolie went public with her surgery and her genetic risks, her current health status, and her importance of family, there may be additional factors that she did not write about. No one should look to Angelina Jolie as the reason for having a preventative double mastectomy. She should be seen as the springboard for discussion and seeking medical information. Each woman needs to examine her own genetic information, family history, current health, and personal values. In the end, they may line up with Jolie, but each woman needs to examine her own situation apart from any other woman. Additionally, a woman also has the choice to not undergo the double mastectomy even if her entire situation resembles Jolie’s. She can choose to undergo yearly routine testing and just monitor her body instead of having the preventative surgery.

I applaud Angelina Jolie for her willingness to write publicly. I am thankful that other women in the spotlight have gone public with their cancer scares and diagnoses, including Christina Applegate, Kathy Bates, Brooke Burke Charvet, and Giuliana Rancic. I am thankful that the women in my family are having the discussion regarding cancer risks, future decisions, and family history. I am thankful that Jolie serves as a reminder to perform self-exams and to have a yearly physical.

The principle of autonomy is the right to make one’s own decision concerning health. This right to make decisions and consider all the choices available is fundamentally important. Jolie not only exercised her autonomous right, but also served as an example for what that looks like.

Mitch GennusoComment