Who cannot applaud Angelina Jolie for going public with her medical issues and her decision to have a double mastectomy after learning she carried a genetic mutation that could dramatically increase her odds of breast and ovarian cancer?
The mutation in question is the BRCA1 gene and according to Time magazine as well as some some medical publications, it is present in only .24 percent of the population. The Mayo Clinic states that this gene accounts for about 5 percent of all cases of breast cancer and 10 percent of ovarian cancer. When any celebrity goes public with a disease, they are applauded for bringing data to the public. In the most ideal situation, those who have the condition are launched into action to see their physicians. But there are many celebrity followers or those who hear about a certain medical condition and then are sure they have it. Those who have hypochondria, or a health phobia, may be sure they have whatever the disease of the week is.
As a psychotherapist, I have treated such patients who would come see me on a weekly basis after watching Grey's Anatomy, House, Nurse Jackie, The Big C, or even reruns of old soap operas and come hobbling in with surety that they had the latest disease. I know friends; intelligent, well-educated women, who are now panicked at the thought of breast cancer when before they did their monthly personal check up and annual exam. Now you can't even get into the Centers that perform mammograms. I know -- I tried, and not because of fear. I go every June. Sadly, I know of those who have chosen to follow Ms. Jolie's path and have double mastectomies without a medical cause or evidence of need, and I know doctors who are willing to perform the operation. Is that actually ethical? Their response is that it is the woman's choice to protect against breast cancer this way if she prefers it as means to eliminate risk.
While I hope Ms. Jolie's publicity causes all women to have more awareness of both breast and ovarian cancer and have their annual check ups, I also hope that doctors will recognize some of the hysteria we are seeing and deal with it appropriately and not necessarily with the knife. One recommendation I read was the suggestion that Ms. Jolie might set up a fund for those who cannot afford screening or mammograms. Wouldn't that be the great thing to come out of this? When you are the Cover Girl for double mastectomy all over the place, in addition to scaring the public into some positive action, please take some positive action to make help available to those who need it.