'I feel at ease with whatever will come': The extraordinary power of Angelina Jolie

Thanks to her recent revelations, many more women will now become aware of ovarian cancer and how to spot the symptoms

March is ovarian cancer awareness month and, I have to confess, I had no idea. That was until Angelina Jolie revealed, in an article in The New York Times, that she has had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to prevent her developing the disease. This is the extraordinary thing about the “Angelina Effect”. It is impossible to predict how many women’s lives will be saved because of her decision to write about her own experience, but it is clear that some will, and that is a wonderful thing.

Jolie’s “Diary of a Surgery” is personal, honest and, above all, driven by a will to live. She writes about wanting to see her children grow up and to meet her grandchildren. Because of her decision to have surgery, she says: “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer’.” She sacrifices some of her own privacy to raise awareness of the disease, with the Hollywood actress known for celebrating her own motherhood stating that she is now in the menopause and cannot have any more children.

Jolie also eradicates any suggestion that might be in people’s minds that having part of your reproductive organs removed makes you any less of a woman, just as having a double mastectomy, as she did two years ago, did not undermine her womanhood. “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.”

Jolie has inherited the “faulty” BRCA1 gene, which left her with an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of getting ovarian cancer. Her mother, aunt and grandmother died of the disease. So it was a precautionary check-up that showed a number of “elevated inflammatory markers” suggesting a higher risk of cancer and which led her to having surgery.

Not all ovarian cancers are linked to the BRCA1, so for women who do not carry this gene it is difficult to spot the warning signs. It is not like feeling a lump in your breast, an easy thing to regularly check. Anyone experiencing one or more of the four key symptoms – persistent pelvic or abdominal pain, persistent bloating, difficulty eating or feeling full, and needing to wee more urgently – more than 12 times a month should go and see their GP, say cancer charities.

Just as more women went to their doctor with concerns about breast cancer after Jolie spoke out about her double mastectomy, it is without doubt that more women will become more aware of ovarian cancer and how to spot the symptoms. While breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, and ovarian cancer is the fourth most common, the latter is more deadly because early diagnosis is so difficult. According to Ovarian Cancer Action, the chances of living longer than five years are 43 per cent, but the charity says that this survival rate would rise to 90 per cent if diagnosis was made earlier.

I looked up these symptoms and statistics only because of Jolie’s article. That is the Angelina Effect. Those who criticised Jolie for her activism against war rape did so because they are sceptical of celebrities taking up causes, such as being goodwill ambassadors for the United Nations, like Emma Watson on women’s rights or Orlando Bloom, who was in Liberia visiting Ebola clinics this week on behalf of the UN. Their critics fail to see that it is their celebrity that is exactly the point; awareness they raise goes so much further.

Breast cancer attracts – rightly – a huge amount of attention. Everyone has heard of Breakthrough Breast Cancer and knows about the pink ribbons. Ovarian cancer does not get half the publicity it should. It may be nearly the end of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, but Jolie has now made us women aware.

Comments