'I don't feel any less of a woman': Angelina Jolie

She is one of the biggest names in Hollywood and is one-half of the famous Brangelina couple.

Angelina Jolie, 37, stunned the world on Tuesday when she revealed that she had had a preventive double mastectomy after learning that she carried a gene that made it extremely likely she would get breast cancer.

The Oscar-winning actress and partner to Brad Pitt made the announcement in the form of an op-ed she authored for Tuesday's The New York Times under the headline, My Medical Choice.

She wrote that between early February and late last month, she had completed three months of surgical procedures to remove both breasts.

Jolie wrote that she made the choice with thoughts of her six adopted children after watching her own mother, actress Marcheline Bertrand, die too young from cancer.

"My mother fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56," she wrote. "She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was. They have asked if the same could happen to me."

Jolie said after genetic testing, she learnt she carries the "faulty" BRCA1 gene and had an 87 per cent chance of getting the disease herself, AP reported.

She wrote: "I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made... My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 per cent to under 5 per cent. I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer."

She was anything but private in the details she provided, giving a description of the procedures.

She wrote: "My own process began on Feb 2 with a procedure known as a 'nipple delay', which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area".

She then described the major surgery two weeks later where breast tissue was removed, saying it felt "like a scene out of a science-fiction film".

Nine weeks later, she had a third surgery to reconstruct the breasts and receive implants.

Many women have chosen preventive mastectomy since genetic screening for breast cancer was developed, but the move and public announcement is unprecedented from a star so young and widely known as Jolie.

Effects of the surgery

She briefly addressed the effects of the surgery on the idealised sexuality and iconic womanhood that have fuelled her fame.

"I do not feel any less of a woman," Jolie wrote. "I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity. I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer.

"It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk, they, too, will know that they have strong options. Life comes with many challenges.

"The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of."

She also wrote that Pitt, her partner of eight years, was at the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Southern California for "every minute of the surgeries".

She wrote: "I am fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive. So to anyone who has a wife or girlfriend going through this, know that you are a very important part of the transition. We knew this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has."

Breast cancer alone kills about 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organisation, mainly in low- and middle-income countries.

Jolie wrote: "It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live."

Bertrand, Jolie's mother, died in January 2007. She had small roles in the movies Lookin' to Get Out in 1982 and The Man Who Loved Women in 1983. She raised Jolie and her brother after divorcing their father, Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight, when Jolie was a toddler.

Jolie has appeared in dozens of films, including 2010's The Tourist and 1999's Girl, Interrupted, for which she won an Academy Award. But she has appeared more often in the news in recent years for her relationship with Pitt and her charitable work with refugees as a United Nations ambassador.

Meanwhile, CNN anchor Zoraida Sambolin announced on Tuesday she has breast cancer and is getting a double mastectomy.

Sambolin, who anchors CNN's Early Start morning show, talked about her condition on the show while discussing Jolie's decision.

We often speak of "Mommy's mommy," and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a "faulty" gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

My doctors estimated that I had an 87 per cent risk of breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.

Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 per cent risk of getting it, on average.

Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex.

On April 27, I finished the three months of medical procedures that the mastectomies involved. During that time I have been able to keep this private and to carry on with my work.

But I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people's hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.

My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a "nipple delay," which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.

Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.

Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.

I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 per cent to under 5 per cent. I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.

For any woman reading this, I hope it helps you to know you have options. I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices.

I acknowledge that there are many wonderful holistic doctors working on alternatives to surgery. My own regimen will be posted in due course on the Web site of the Pink Lotus Breast Center. I hope that this will be helpful to other women.

The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than US$3,000 (S$3,720) in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.


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