by Azeezat Fadekemi Sulaiman– Editor in Chief
I woke up to the news this morning that Angelina Jolie had once again undertaking preventative surgery to reduce her risk of getting cancer. This time, the actress and UN envoy had an operation to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.
Two years ago, Jolie had a double mastectomy as a preventative measure to reduce her chances of getting breast cancer. At the time, she hinted that she may undertake further procedures as at when required, but for someone like me who had very little experience of cancer or knowledge about research and treatments of the disease, I assumed the next move she would make would be less, shall we say intrusive.
Jolie, who’s lost three women in her family to cancer took the decision to have both breasts removed after being told she had a 87% risk of getting breast cancer and a 50% chance of getting ovarian cancer. Writing in the New York Times, the actress said, “Once I knew this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and minimize the risk as much as I could. I made a decision to have a preventative double mastectomy.” She chose to start with the breasts as ‘her risk of breast cancer was much higher than Ovarian cancer,’ plus the former was a more ‘complex procedure.’
At the time, my initial thoughts were why is she taking such an extreme measure if she’s still years away from the disease manifesting? For a woman, the decision to remove one’s breasts is not a decision any of us would take likely and even though I didn’t totally understand her decision at the time, I chose to respect it.
I wasn’t the only one sceptical about Jolie’s preventative procedure. Surgeons up and down the country and even in the US criticised her for ‘scaring’ other women into taking unnecessary measures in a bid to prevent cancer, but others applauded her bravery for confronting the killer disease head on. Many women who were also battling the disease credited the mum of 6 for inspiring them to seek knowledge about their condition to help them make more informed decisions.
Now that Jolie has removed her Ovaries and fallopian tubes, the implications are irreversible as she can no longer have children and is already menopausal even though she’s only 39. If I thought removing her breasts was a tad dramatic, then imagine my alarm at hearing just how far she’d gone in her preventative battle with cancer.
As an African woman, the mere thought of changing one’s appearance or anatomy for any reason, cosmetic or medical is one that will be taken with many factors taken into consideration. There are religious factors as Africans are one of the most religious people in the world. Then, there are cultural reasons to be considered. The thought of calling a family meeting to tell your loved ones that you intend not only to remove both of your breasts (which would cause considerable alarm initially), but you also now plan to remove your reproductive organs would be met with serious opposition in most African households even if it may save your life.
Even for a woman as liberal as Jolie, this was not a decision that was taken lightly. She did her research, sought knowledge about this disease she was fighting. She spoke to experts in different parts of the world and then ultimately made a decision that was good for her. It is important to note the key word here is ‘seeking knowledge’. She did not limit herself to what she’d been told by one person or one book, she searched far and wide to find out as much as she could, making sure she knew what options were available to her.
To understand Jolie’s life changing medical choices, one must go back to the beginning of where it all began. She lost her mum, grandmother and aunt to cancer, it doesn’t really take a genius to know that she already more than likely carries the gene responsible for the disease. Jolie was really close to her mother and struggled to watch a woman she loved battle with cancer for over a decade. She’s spoken of her despair over the fact that her mum never got to meet all her grandchildren because she was taken away so soon thanks to this deadly disease.
Herein lies the main motivation for a young woman who knows that if she intends to be there long enough for her children and avoid the heartache she had to suffer after loosing her mum, she would have to define her own destiny and not leave it to fate. Reading her heartfelt article, which details the events that led up to her having this procedure, you realise the sole purpose why Jolie is doing this is for herself and her children. “I know my kids will never have to say, “Mom died of ovarian cancer”, she said.
Not only has she done this incredibly brave thing, what is even more courageous is sharing it with the world in the hope that other women will hear her story and never feel alone in their battle against cancer. She knows some of us will judge her and many may not understand, but she also knows that her story will inspire many ordinary women out there facing the same tough decisions and they will be able to draw strength from her story, find their own truth and make their own decisions.
Some would say this still doesn’t mean she will never have cancer, but even if she does, at least she knows it wont be breast or ovarian cancer. She’ll rest in the knowledge that she did absolutely everything she could to prevent the disease taking her away from her family or indeed stopping her from living her life.
One thing I would like for African women to take from Jolie’s story is what she herself ended her piece with. ‘Knowledge is power’. A few years ago, I met a mum of two who had cancer. As her cancer progressed, I was told she refused treatment offered by the hospital for religious reasons as she believed her faith would heal her. She died a few months later leaving two young children, a 5-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy and a devastated husband. Would she still be with us today had she undergone chemotherapy, I don’t know, but I sincerely wish she’d given it a shot.
As in every other aspect of our lives, African women have to start thinking beyond what our culture and religion requires of us and seek knowledge to empower ourselves to make decisions that are right for us. If you’ve decided to undertake a medical procedure that you feel would enhance your quality of life, please don’t let anything stop you. You’re in control, take it.