Angelina Jolie's own metered and honest words about undergoing an elective double mastectomy are printed in the New York Times today, making her vastly removed celebrity voice feeling closer to the many, many women who fear the real chances of developing breast cancer.
I, like most of us, watch Jolie from afar, flip past her outstretched, miles-long leg on a red-carpet piece in a gossip magazine. I see her on a movie screen occasionally, watch her on news clips about humanitarian work as she walks through orphanages and war-torn countries, covered in a head scarf, carrying someone else's children, leading a small group of her own kids. But her essay in the paper, and on my screen, today, no matter how measured and carefully thought-out, felt familiar.
I know women who have extraordinary odds of the bad cells, the kind that can all-too easily and far-too quickly, take a mother from her babies and work and dreams. I am friends with women who have had scares, who've been through surgeries and treatments. I have lost women I've loved and admired to cancer. And after she wrote honestly and humorously and tearfully about her own decision to cut the odds of developing the cancer that killed her own mother by having an elective mastectomy like Jolie, I became acquainted with Jackie Morgan MacDougall.
Jackie (friendlier than the last-name basis Jolie) spilled out her experience in a Huffington Post piece, "How losing my breasts made me feel beautiful", and gave the OK for me to write a reaction to it, which also ran on GalTime and Huffington Post. My words were not about my own choice to have the surgery to save my life, but rather, my respect for women who make such a personal decision.
I admitted my fear of my breasts, of feeling a lump of the bad cells myself, of the panic that overwhelms any discomfort of a cold mammogram pressing against my skin and tissue. I didn't -- and still don't -- want to live in fear, particularly of my breasts. I love that these two women (and all of those others I have known, and so many more of you) looked right back at the fear, results, history, possibilities and said, "I choose different." It's a personal act that reaches out to all of us who don't know you well enough to have coffee and won't run into you at school pick-up or don't have the best number to send you a late-night text, and it feels profound.
Jackie and Jolie share the BRCA1 gene and could be bound by the choice to have what some people once called a "radical" surgery. But what I read in words they both wrote is more overwhelming, positive, empowering, emotional. It is the fire to live, to say yes to medical technology we are privileged to have access to and no to a scary probability that the bad cells will show up, to nod to raising kids and stressing over stuff other than statistics and circular exams and no to any criticism or questioning.
Jackie responded to Jolie's NYT piece here today (and here on HuffPost) with a thank you. And I feel like the gratitude should be extended to Jackie and the many other brave women who share their stories of cancer and fear and self-care. That honesty helps all of us. And I hope -- I really hope -- that these women and all of those worrying about results, undergoing treatment, fighting for their lives or who will get the dreaded phone call today live long and beautiful and healing lives.
That won't happen. Too many women will die of cancer. Scores more will worry over it without the resources or support to be tested or take steps or make it to their doctor's office for an exam. But for this one still moment while Jackie and Jolie's words are still on our screens and in our papers, while we are gathered around together to say our own yeses to more options and research and funding for women's health care, perhaps we can be connected, closer -- hands to our own chests, breaths deep and steady, hearts pounding with both confidence and hope.