Olivia Barker, USA TODAY 4:45 p.m. EDT May 14, 2013
Reporter, who is battling breast cancer, says Jolie's revelation was "helpful," but women battling metastatic disease are "brave"
Revealing? Sure. Helpful? Maybe.
But "classy" and "brave"? I don't think so.
I woke up this morning and groaned at the headline glaring from my iPad. Not at Angelina Jolie's decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy — that was smart and right — but at the reaction to her choice to go public with such a personal decision on the op-ed page of The New York Times, the highbrow equivalent of the cover of People or the 8 a.m. hour of Today.
I immediately thought of an interview I had with Edie Falco just a couple months ago. We talked about, to paraphrase Jolie, her medical choice — to keep her breast cancer diagnosis a decade ago private.
"When I was going through my treatment, I didn't tell anybody," she told me. "Because I don't want that. I don't want anybody's pity. I've been through it. I'm strong. I have access to the best doctors because I'm on a TV show. I mean, ridiculous good fortune is all around me."
And who are the brave ones in the country's breast cancer conversation? They're so quiet as to be all but ignored. They're the women with metastatic disease, especially the young women I get chemo alongside at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the ones who really may not see their children graduate from kindergarten, let alone high school.
As Jolie rightly pointed out in her piece, breast cancer still kills an unacceptable number of women every year. Those whose lives are in the balance, who don't have the luxury of admiring their perky, reconstructed nipples, those are the women who need a worldwide platform.
As Falco told me, "I see what some people are going through, and (my experience) really is nothing. So I mention it offhand because it really is offhand. That's the God's honest truth. I've been very, very lucky."
So has Jolie. Like Falco, she can tap into a network of the finest surgeons. (Yes, it makes a huge difference.) And she's also lucky in a perverse sense: Considering that her mom battled ovarian cancer, Jolie knew that there was a good chance she carried the BRCA mutation. Other BRCA-positive women, those with no family history and therefore no reason to be tested, have no idea until it's too late.
Jolie is the new, gorgeous poster woman for a procedure that should be, and hopefully soon will be, de rigueur. Whether she likes it or not (and I'm thinking the former), she will forever be known as much for her increasingly conventional health choice as for her unconventional family. She is now the world's most beautiful actress/mom/Brad Pitt partner and ... preventative bilateral mastectomy champion?
Falco, on the other hand, doesn't even think about what she went through. "I look back, and 10 years have gone by," she said. "It's just a little blip." Forget the mere threat of disease: Falco, like most cancer-afflicted women I know, refuses to be defined by her actual disease.
"Major surgery" is having a double mastectomy to try and save your life, like I did. Radical is going under the knife in hopes that a modified radical mastectomy reveals that your cancer hasn't spread to scores of lymph nodes. It's not broadcasting a surgery that's more headache than hardship. To get lauded as "absolutely heroic" for doing something that is (relatively) minimally risky and, frankly, the responsible thing — a proverbial no-brainer — boggles my mind.