Best dressed, brave, and breast cancer free

by Karen on March 11, 2014

I always enjoy checking out the photos on the Best Dressed lists the day after the Academy Awards. This year I loved seeing Lupita Nyong’o, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lawrence. And Kerry Washington and Olivia Wilde both took glowing to a whole new level.

I was also pleased to see Angelina Jolie made most of the Best lists. She was described as “beyond breathtaking,” “divine” and “sparkling.” Some observers disagreed, including one who described her nearly sheer, embellished Elie Saab couture gown as “mother-of-the-bride.” Hmmm. Not like any mother of the bride I’ve ever seen, but OK.

However, when a blogger mentioned Jolie’s “boob job” and then went on to disparage Jolie’s body in ways that had nothing to do with her dress, I wanted to reach right through my computer screen.

As the writer no doubt knows since she’s blogged about it before, Jolie’s “boob job” was actually reconstructive surgery after a preventive double mastectomy. Jolie elected to have the surgery last year after learning she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, which greatly increases her risk for developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

I made a decision similar to Jolie’s 18 years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 34 and the daughter of a woman who had been diagnosed with cancer in one breast at age 33 and in the other breast five years later. I had two young children, and although it would be years before I was tested for BRCA mutations, I knew there was something genetic going on. I elected to have a mastectomy, and I planned a second, preventive mastectomy, along with reconstructive surgery, for a year later.

For me, it was a purely psychological decision. As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, two breasts were a small price to pay for peace of mind. Still, I was gratified to learn that recent research confirmed my instincts.

According to a study published online last month in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), women who are positive for BRCA mutations and who are treated for stage I or II breast cancer with a double mastectomy are less likely to die from breast cancer than those treated with a single mastectomy only.

It’s important to note that only a small percentage of women with breast cancer have the faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. But for those with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, the finding is significant.

Personally, my lingering doubt has never been about the prophylactic mastectomy. My coulda-woulda-shouldas have always been connected to the genetic testing itself.

Although tests were available when I was diagnosed in 1995, there were no laws to prevent insurers or employers from discriminating against me – or my children – based on genetics.

As it turns out, I was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer at age 47 in 2007. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was signed into law in 2008, and in early 2009 I sent off a vial of blood to be tested. It came as no surprise that, like Jolie, I have the BRCA1 mutation.

Would I have had my ovaries removed if I had known in 1995 that I carried the gene mutation? Probably not. After all, I was only 34, and early menopause presents health risks, too. But I might have had them removed before 2007 or been more vigilant about screening.

We all make judgment calls – good and bad. As an 18-year survivor of breast cancer, I think I made the right call on my own “boob job.”

That blogger’s decision to criticize Angelina Jolie, who lost her mother to ovarian cancer in 2007, about hers? Not so much.

P.S. My daughter, now 23, was tested in 2011, and I’m happy to report she does not have the BRCA1 gene mutation.


anna March 12, 2014 at 6:47 am

Fabulous as always!

Karen March 12, 2014 at 8:14 am

Thanks, Anna!

Aubrey Anderson March 29, 2014 at 3:59 am

Great post. I find it disgusting that someone would make negative comments about her breasts (even if they had looked terrible), knowing that she had a double mastectomy to prevent cancer in the future. It’s especially worse for me, now, as my mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer–Ductal carcinoma.

Karen March 29, 2014 at 10:42 am

Thanks so much, Aubrey. I’m sorry to hear about your mom. I hope her treatment goes well.

Ai-Lien April 1, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. Jolie made a personal decision and no one should be so harsh. She shared her story to help others, to let them know breast cancer is nothing to take lightly. I lost my Mother in 2012 to breast cancer, but my case is different for I am adopted. I did have a lump removed and I worry for I have a 17 year old daughter. We all have to make decisions that are best for US AND OUR FAMILY!!

Karen April 1, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Thank you, Ai-Lien! I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. Wishing you and your daughter all the best.

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