I read with interest Angelina Jolie's op-ed article in the New York Times where she gave some details of and reasons for the double mastectomy she underwent recently. Her 56- year old mother had died of cancer and could not live long enough to carry all her grandchildren in her arms. Angelina found that she had a gene that could cause breast and ovarian cancer. Her doctors told her that she faced 87 % risk of breast cancer and 50% of ovarian cancer. By removing her breasts, she has cut down the risk of breast cancer to below 5%. The medical procedures took 3 months to be completed. At the end of it, she is happy that breast cancer is not likely to snatch her away from her children.
Angelina's step has been widely hailed as courageous and she has come to symbolise a woman who can take unorthodox decisions which she believes are in her interest. It has inspired women, particularly in countries like ours where women are not able to take even the most basic decisions pertaining to them. Many are not given the option to decide about their education, marriage, job and so on.
However, I am concerned by the report that doctors in Bangalore have been flooded with inquiries about double mastectomy. I hope, women take their own decisions after careful thinking and are not unduly influenced by what Angelina has done. Icons like Angelina can lead people to blindly follow them and take decisions which they may subsequently regret.
Removal of breasts for women anywhere can be traumatic. I am not sure if the risk is worth taking. Even after double mastectomy, the risk is not totally gone. It is only substantially reduced. Also, this is a risk that can be identified and quantified through some medical tests, but there are risks which cannot be identified. Since they cannot be identified, we cannot do anything about them. Does it really make sense to take such drastic preventive actions against the risks we are able to identify? I can understand going in for some vaccination and taking some medicine to prevent diseases from occurring, but double mastectomy is a totally different cup of tea.
I understand that breast cancer may be cured if detected early. As per a WHO report, over 4,50,000 women die of breast cancer every year and most of them are from low income and middle income countries. For such women,a test to identify the gene which causes cancer is out of question. In India, the test is stated to be available only at Bangalore and costs about 80000 rupees. Many of these 4,50,000 women could have been saved if their breast cancer had been detected early, if they had been taught the techniques of self examination and if low-cost or free treatment had been made available to them.
I respect Angelina's decision and appreciate the logic of it, but I hope and pray that her decision does not take the focus away from what I believe are the real issues.