Angelina Jolie Talks About Her Second Preventative Cancer Surgery
LOS ANGELES — TWO years ago I wrote about my choice to have a preventive double mastectomy. A simple blood test had revealed that I carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene. It gave me an estimated 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. I lost my mother, grandmother and aunt tocancer.
I had been planning this for some time. It is a less complex surgery than the mastectomy, but its effects are more severe. It puts a woman into forced menopause. So I was readying myself physically and emotionally, discussing options with doctors, researching alternative medicine, and mapping my hormones for estrogenor progesterone replacement. But I felt I still had months to make the date.
Then two weeks ago I got a call from my doctor with blood-test results. “Your CA-125 is normal,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief. That test measures the amount of the protein CA-125 in the blood, and is used to monitor ovarian cancer. I have it every year because of my family history.
But that wasn’t all. He went on. “There are a number of inflammatory markers that are elevated, and taken together they could be a sign of early cancer.” I took a pause. “CA-125 has a 50 to 75 percent chance of missing ovarian cancer at early stages,” he said. He wanted me to see the surgeon immediately to check my ovaries.
The day of the results came. The PET/CT scan looked clear, and the tumor test was negative. I was full of happiness, although the radioactive tracer meant I couldn’t hug my children. 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.
I did not do this solely because I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, and I want other women to hear this. 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.
Last week, I had the procedure: a laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. There was a small benign tumor on one ovary, but no signs of cancer in any of the tissues.
It is not possible to remove all risk, and the fact is I remain prone to cancer. I will look for natural ways to strengthen my immune system. 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.”
Regardless of the hormone replacements I’m taking, I am now in menopause. I will not be able to have any more children, and I expect some physical changes. But I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared.
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.
It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.
Read all of Angelina Jolie Pitt’s op-ed piece from the New York Times here: Angelina Jolie Pitt: Diary of a Surgery