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Angelina Jolie, dazzling film star and once named sexiest woman in the world by FHM, has recently captured media attention by revealing in the New York Times that she has undergone a procedure known as a double mastectomy; which means she has had both her breasts removed. She underwent this surgery as she is at a high genetic risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, both of which are aggressive and often fatal forms of cancer if not dealt with quickly. As a prominent media figure, Jolie’s decision is bound to have an effect on her fans and the watchful eyes of the public, as her situation brings to light an illness common amongst millions of women and a tough decision that some are forced to make.
Breast cancer is thought to be the most common cancer in the United Kingdom alone, with awareness groups claiming around 50,000 women and 400 men are diagnosed each year. Most people are lucky enough to make a recovery, with the campaigns urging people to ensure that they are checking their breasts and making sure they act quickly if they fear the worst. Breast cancer can be caused by a number of factors, from our genes, to our lifestyle and environment. Whilst many women are able to keep their breasts, a double mastectomy for the particularly vulnerable can decrease the chances of breast cancer to a single digit percentage. It has been seen before that the actions of celebrities have an impact on the public. Jade Goody, for example, was credited with a huge surge in people going for cancer screenings, after publically battling with and sadly, dying of, cervical cancer. Sky News reported that the NHS Information Centre had found “the number of women aged 25-64 having smear tests rose by 112% from 3.2 million to 3.6 million”; a huge improvement considering the number of women actively being screened for cervical cancer had been dropping since 2002.
However, the decision to have both breasts removed is something many women are reluctant to make. Men, for example, often feel ‘unmanly’ if they are forced to take drastic measures in order to combat testicular cancer – so why would women feel any differently when breasts are viewed as a feminine, womanly feature? Luckily for Jolie, she’s married to Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt, who told USA Today that not only did he completely support her decision to have her breasts removed, he was also emotional about her decision to go public: “She could have stayed absolutely private about it… But it was really important to her to share the story and that others would understand it doesn’t have to be a scary thing”. Whilst Jolie has had the mastectomy, she also opted to have cosmetic implants, and the chances are nobody would have even noticed – therefore it seems her decision to tell everybody that she had undergone procedure is not just a sign of honesty and bravery, but may also lead the way for other women to do the same.
If anything, what Angelina Jolie has done is heroic, and fellow celebs took to social networking websites to commend her. Sharon Osbourne, who had the same procedure done a few years ago, said “She’ll have empowered millions of women all over the world. She is sexier than ever”. Cannes Film Festival Director Thierry Fremaux stated that there is no different between Angelina Jolie as a superstar or as a person, describing her as a strong woman who did not speak about her mastectomy for herself, but instead as “an example to all the women on this planet earth who are suffering from the same disease”. Kylie Minogue, also a breast cancer survivor, described Jolie as “inspirational”.
With Jolie’s status as a sex symbol, simply for her smoking good looks and perfect figure, it is certainly a brave decision. In her touching article, Jolie speaks tenderly of her “loving and gracious” mother who died of cancer, and urges other women to take charge of cancer by ensuring the to make the most of new technologies which can reveal whether you are susceptible to various cancers. She described her mastectomy as not an easy decision “but one I am very happy that I made”. She stated, “I do not feel any less of a woman, I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity… I chose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know they might be living under the shadow of cancer”.
At the end of the day, in a society so focused on perfection, it is refreshing to see a beautiful superstar prioritising her health and well-being over her physical appearance. A woman should not be defined by the lumps in her sweater, there are many things about us women that makes us feminine – be it our sparkling personalities or (my personal vice of) being unable to visit Boots without trying to find that perfect new lipstick/nail polish. Looks should not define who we are, but unfortunately with this branded image of perfection it’s a sad truth that many women may be afraid of protecting themselves from cancer if it means sacrificing their breasts. I cannot think of a better way to end this article than to close with Angelina’s final sentence: “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of”.