She lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer. So when Angelina Jolie learned she had signs of pre-cancer in her ovaries, she knew immediately what she had to do for the sake of her family.
The actress, filmmaker and UN special envoy carries a mutation of the BRCA1 gene, which vastly increases her risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Two years ago, she announced she’d had a preventative double mastectomy to cut her 87 per cent chance of breast cancer. The mutation also gives her a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer.
Two weeks ago, results from an annual blood test to monitor for ovarian cancer showed worrying signs. She was told to urgently see her surgeon. Her husband, Brad Pitt, flew back from France to be by her side. Five days later, she learned that further tests had found no tumours.
“There was still a chance of early stage cancer, but that was minor compared with a full-blown tumor. To my relief, I still had the option of removing my ovaries and fallopian tubes and I chose to do it,” she writes in the New York Times.
She underwent a laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, which found a small benign tumour on one ovary but no cancerous tissue. The preventative surgery has forced menopause upon the mum of six, and she’ll never again be able to bear children.
But, she writes, “I feel feminine, and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family. I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer’”.
The 39-year-old says the scare merely sped up the surgery, which she had been planning to have anyway at some stage. “So I was readying myself physically and emotionally, discussing options with doctors, researching alternative medicine, and mapping my hormones for estrogen or progesterone replacement. But I felt I still had months to make the date,” she writes.
Jolie’s mum, Marcheline Bertrand, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer aged 49 and died seven years later. Jolie says Eastern and Western doctors she consulted agreed removal of her ovaries and tubes was the best option given her family history. But she says it won’t remove all risk, “and the fact is I remain prone to cancer”.
She wants other women to know that “a positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery”. “I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options. Some women take birth control pills or rely on alternative medicines combined with frequent checks. There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally,” she writes.
“I feel deeply for women for whom this moment comes very early in life, before they have had their children. Their situation is far harder than mine. I inquired and found out that there are options for women to remove their fallopian tubes but keep their ovaries, and so retain the ability to bear children and not go into menopause. I hope they can be aware of that.”
Jolie has been widely praised for speaking out about her preventative surgeries and BRCA testing, with many doctors saying it will save lives.