From her late mother, Angelina Jolie inherited the acting bug and a commitment to humanitarian causes. But as the Oscar-winning actress explained in the New York Times, she also inherited a “faulty” gene, which dramatically increased her risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
In the Times piece, entitled “My Medical Choice”, Jolie revealed she had recently undergone three months of treatment at the Pink Lotus Breast Centre in Los Angeles, culminating in a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
After learning about her susceptibility to the disease, Jolie wrote: “I decided to be proactive and to minimise the risk… I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer.”
The reaction from Hollywood was positive. Singer Sheryl Crow, who was herself treated for breast cancer in 2006, wrote on Twitter: “I commend Angelina Jolie for her courage and thoughtfulness in sharing her story. So brave!”
Jolie’s partner, actor Brad Pitt, said he thought her decision “absolutely heroic… All I want is for her to have a long and healthy life, with myself and our children. This is a happy day for our family,” he said.
Jolie, who is 37, continued to work during the treatment, which she completed on 27 April, and which has reduced her chance of developing breast cancer from 87 per cent to five per cent. She went public to make other women aware of their medical options.
“There are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer,” she wrote. “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.”
The decision to go ahead with the mastectomy was difficult, she went on, “but it is one I am very happy that I made… I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Jolie is a noted humanitarian, though rarely has her chosen cause been so personal. In 2006, she and Pitt founded the Jolie-Pitt foundation to help humanitarian causes worldwide. Last year, after more than a decade as a UN goodwill ambassador, she was named a special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Her mother, actress Marcheline Bertrand, was also an activist: the co-founder of Native American campaign group the All Tribes Foundation, she also created the Give Love Give Life charity, which staged concerts to raise awareness of ovarian and other gynaecological cancers.
Bertrand spilt from Jolie’s father, actor Jon Voight, in 1976, and abandoned her career to raise her two children. She died in 2007, aged 56, after eight years struggling with ovarian cancer. Jolie later told Esquire magazine: “There is no longevity on my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother also died young, so my mother always thought it could happen to her.”
The twice-married Jolie has been in a relationship with Pitt for several years. The couple are engaged and have six children, three biological and three adopted. The actress wrote in her article that her children had often asked whether she would die young like her mother.
Now, she wrote: “I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer… They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was.”