Angelina’s mastectomy: championing choice or singing corporate tune?

What is it about Angelina Jolie that sparks controversy? When I first read her article about her risk reduction double mastectomy, I was impressed by her courage and dignity and thought what a shining example for other women in the same situation. She stood out as a modern woman, totally in control of her life and much like some of the characters she has played in films, rather than wait for the killer disease to strike, she hunted the deadly gene down and decimated it before it could rear its ugly head. Just as I was about to vote her in for another humanitarian award, came a slew of articles ‘exposing’ the ‘truth’ behind her double mastectomy. They said that the article was a part of a PR campaign by a trillion dollar company which owned the patent for the cancer – the BRCA1 gene. They said that the article was timed to coincide with a Supreme Court hearing on whether genes can be patented by private companies. They said that the BRCA1 screening, which can only be done by the said private company, costs upwards of $ 4,000 and out of reach for most women. If the patent for the gene is taken away, the cost implications of the test were immense – and the losses to the company equally huge.

Immediately, Angelina Jolie fell from her pedestal as Champion of the Rights of Afflicted Women and became a Corporate Stooge. But hold on, what is Angelina Jolie being accused of here – talking about a very personal, emotionally fraught decision she took for pushing a corporate agenda?

I would like to disagree. If anything, her article highlights a) the need for making this test more readily and cheaply available; and b) the importance of preventive protocols in cancer management.

So whether it was written as part of the PR campaign or not, the fact is that the issues are being talked about and when the Supreme Court of the US takes a decision in the matter, it will look at both sides of the coin. And chances of the patent being taken away are exactly the same as status quo being maintained. For us in India, the news is all good. Though the test and the risk reduction mastectomy are available in India, they are not very popular. Cost is a prohibitive factor – the test comes at a price tag of Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000.

Then there is the issue of ‘losing your femininity’ that accompanies the thought of a mastectomy.

Doctors say that mastectomy in cases where cancer is already present is an emotionally fraught issue, so when it comes to losing your breasts as a preventive measure few women agree to it. Dr Bhavna Sirohi is a cancer specialist who returned to India after 12 years in London. She is presently at the Tata Memorial hospital in Mumbai and her experience has not been encouraging. The risk reduction mastectomy, accompanied with a risk reduction hysterectomy in cases where the patient had completed her family, were the norm in London. She told me that the BRCA1 is an extremely aggressive cancer and treatment is very difficult involving rigorous testing, radiation, chemotherapy.

In London, she saw sisters and daughters of women with this Triple Negative BC (Breast Cancer) going in for what Angelina Jolie did. So she, in fact, sees nothing extraordinary about what Angelina Jolie has done. In effect, she has simply done what the doctor told her to. But in India, the culture of voluntarily seeking to remove your breasts to cut down the risk of cancer does not exist. Women are willing to die every day, waiting for the cancer to appear, rather than take the proactive protocol of going in for a mastectomy. Let’s hope that Angelina’s example may change perceptions and save lives.

Soni Sangwan has reported on Delhi-warts and all- for several years. She is now a Journalist-in-Retirement, dividing her time between watching her two-year-old daughter grow and seeing the city she loves evolve
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