When Angelina Jolie decides to have her breasts removed because she carries the BRCA1 gene — a mutation that some Ashkenazi Jewish women also have and which has been linked to breast cancer — it’s a choice that must throw many, many women for a loop.
If the world’s most famous and gorgeous woman/mother/Hollywood superstar is taking such a drastic a step, what should the rest of us do?
In truth, I have no idea. I’m not a doctor. I’m just a woman wondering how much we should base our decisions, medical and otherwise, on worst-case scenarios.
Let’s remember: Angelina did not have breast cancer. She has a gene mutation that can eventually lead to cancer in some cases.
Obviously, I am not saying she did anything less than brave. Obviously, I am not saying that anyone should ditch the mammograms and live in La-La land.
What I am moved to note is that, in general, we have been trained to think in terms of what terrible thing could possibly happen to us, our bodies, and even our kids, to the point where at times we are not just prepared, we are over-prepared for the worst.
This is a virtue that deserves a second look.
In “The Problem With Pink,” the recent cover article in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Peggy Orenstein proposed that today’s women have been so inundated with breast cancer awareness that we are now almost too prepared for the worst. Crammed with “Take action or else!” admonitions, we demand more mammograms than the experts recommend, and in turn make health decisions that might actually be too drastic for our own good.
Just a few days later, the same topic came up in another Times article, by Jane Brody. Only this time, instead of mammograms, it looked at the 63.4 million pelvic exams American women undergo each year. “Now a growing number of experts are asking whether it’s necessary to do so many,” Brody wrote.
The problem both pieces pondered is this: The more closely you look at almost anything, the more things you find to worry about. Brody quoted a doctor bemoaning the fact that he “frequently” finds irregularities during exams that then require a sonogram, that then show a mass, that then requires exploratory surgery, that then “nearly always” turns out to be benign.