Published June 20, 2013
Singer Melissa Etheridge, a breast cancer survivor, recently gave an interview to the Washington Blade. In it, she said actress Angelina Jolie was “fearful,” not “brave,” for having a prophylactic, or preventive, double mastectomy.
Etheridge told the Washington Blade that Jolie “made the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer.” She went on to say that she believed cancer “came from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body.”
Thereafter, she suggested there had been advances in nutrition and stress levels such that Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy was “way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do.”
Jolie and Etheridge both have the BRCA gene, which means they have a very high likelihood of getting breast cancer. Etheridge has had breast cancer. Jolie has not, but has a family history of cancer in addition to the BRCA gene.
My wife is another story. My wife tested negative for the BRCA gene. In fact, in several genetic tests my wife showed no genetic indication of cancer. But her mother, mother’s sister, grandmother, and other relatives all had breast cancer. Both her mother and aunt died. Her aunt underwent a prophylactic mastectomy, but later developed lung cancer, which the doctors believed had spread from her breasts. My wife’s mother had very aggressive breast cancer that was detected early, but still proved fatal. Only her grandmother survived a fight with breast cancer.
Facing a family history, but negative genetic tests, my wife and I battled insurance until they agreed she could have a double mastectomy. Three months after our marriage, my wife had the surgery. I did not realize what women facing that surgery go through. Not just the interior tissue is removed, but the exterior tissue is too. Tattoos are typically then used to recreate the exterior appearance with implants to replace the interior tissue.
My wife’s reconstruction could not follow immediately after the surgery. Too much internal damage had been done and she needed to heal. For several days after she came home I would physically have to lift her from the bed in the mornings. She had no upper body strength. Each week I would leave my law practice early and make the 90-minute drive to her doctor’s office. They would stick her with a needle, slowly injecting saline into empty “expanders” left where the breast tissue had been.
Some weeks the pain would cause her to throw up. Every week I’d drive her home, put her in bed, and let her recover. During a span of six months, her chest area slowly expanded and stretched for reconstructive surgery. Unfortunately, my wife’s reconstruction did not go as planned. It took multiple reconstructions, with another after our first child was born five years later.
The experience was exhausting for me and grueling for her. Knowing what she went through and what Angelina Jolie went through, I am offended for them both and all the other women who bravely subject themselves to the removal of their breasts because of what might happen.
Contrary to Melissa Etheridge, there is no science that shows reducing stress or changing a diet may prevent breast cancer. The only guaranteed way for many women is to have a prophylactic double mastectomy and then wonder for years after “what if” — what if they went through all of that and did not have to, what if some cure came along causing it to be unnecessary, what if their children would look at them differently, what if their husbands would too, what if . . . the list goes on.
There is a level of bravery and courage subjecting yourself to a torturous process to avoid what many may consider only a chance of cancer. But having seen loved ones wither and die having not made that choice, for many women it is a far wiser course of action. It takes great bravery to undergo surgery in the shadow of an unknown future.
My wife is my hero. She is the bravest, most courageous person I know. She is also a great fan of Angelina Jolie’s. On the day Angelina Jolie announced her own mastectomy, I took a copy of the article to my wife, laid it in front of her, and told her now she had more than tattoos in common with Angelina Jolie. Like Angelina Jolie now, through her platform as a highly regarded celebrity, my very private wife for years since her surgery has had a ministry of her own, letting other women ask all the questions to her she never had anyone to ask about this issue.
I feel sorry for Melissa Etheridge, who not only seems to have fallen for pseudo-science in the prevention of cancer, but does not recognize the courage and bravery of women who make life and body altering decisions to ensure they have long lives free of the cancer that robbed them of their own mothers, sisters and friends. Fear played no role in my wife’s decision or in Angelina Jolie’s decision. Genetics, family history, and probability helped them make their choice.
It would be a shame if Melissa Etheridge’s comments caused other women, now having the doubts my wife had before her surgery, to second-guess a decision that could save their lives.