Published On: Wed, May 15th, 2013

Angelina Jolie’s Brave Decision – Celebrating Life After Cancer by Andrea Paine May 15, 2013

angie jolieCFN – When Angelina Jolie’s opinion piece came out in the New York Times yesterday, revealing that she had a double mastectomy followed by reconstruction, as a result of testing positive for the BRCA1 gene, there was a lot of discussion and chatter by various media outlets and by social media.

I applaud Jolie for her bravery and willingness to share her experience with the public. By doing this, she will be able to shed a greater light on breast cancer in general, and its genetic issues. Knowledge is power, and anyone going through a battle with breast cancer knows that you need to stay well informed in order to make the best decisions for your own case.

As a mother of three daughters, I can also understand where her mind was when she received the bad news. No, she didn’t have breast cancer. But she had pretty high odds of getting it. With the passing of her mother, as a result of breast cancer, and at such a young age, there is no doubt in my mind how difficult it must have been to think of her own children, and the unenviable position she found herself in.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, six years ago, I was not aware of the extent of my family’s history with the disease. I knew that one of my aunts had ovarian cancer, and that another also had breast cancer, but after my first surgery, a lumpectomy, more family members came out of the woodwork. As the margins were not clear after the initial surgery for the lumpectomy, I had to go back for more surgery, and had to decide whether I would have another lumpectomy or, as there were no guarantees they’d get all the cancer on the second try, go in for the mastectomy.

It was during the days of contemplation prior to my decision that I heard that not only did I have two cousins that were diagnosed with cancer when they were in their forties, five out of seven of my father’s sisters had been diagnosed with breast cancer, another sister had passed away from ovarian cancer, and two out of four brothers had prostate cancer.

My decision became much more crucial. I had already decided to go for a full mastectomy, but now I needed to think of the other breast as well. It was also recommended that I go for genetic testing.

After a few months of testing and waiting for an operation date, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a gruelling ten and a half hour operation that, first, had my oncology team in to remove the breasts, the cancer and test my lymph nodes for any sign of cancer cells that could be spreading. The second part of the operation had my plastic surgeon’s team reconstructing my breasts, using tissue from my abdomen; in more medical terms, a tram flap.

It was a few years following this operation that I started genetic testing. Much of this involves a detailed family history, so that doctors can determine whether or not it’s worthwhile going through the blood tests that would indicate whether I was a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. My decision to go through with the genetic testing was partly for myself, and partly because I had three daughters, and two sisters who would benefit from the information contained in my results. If I was a gene carrier, I would have a much higher chance of getting ovarian cancer, and would have another difficult decision to make. My daughters would have a much higher chance of acquiring breast cancer as well, and would be in the same situation that Jolie found herself in.

The decision was made to go through with the blood tests. I would be called back in a few weeks to get my results. During this time there were many things that went through my mind. I would have to decide, sooner rather than later, that I would have a full hysterectomy.

And I was scared; not only for myself.

I was scared for my daughters, still so young, and their futures. What if breast cancer hits them even earlier than it hit me? I thought of the implications of carrying one, or both, of these genes. Should I get life insurance for the girls? Should I get a safety deposit box and put the results in there, only to be taken out at a much later date? If my daughters were told that I was a gene carrier, they would not be eligible for life insurance in Canada. My sisters, who were already considered high risk, because of me, would have to be tested themselves.

Even while I was afraid, my logical self also thought that, at least, I would have a clearer picture of why I got breast cancer.

It was a beautiful, but cold, sunny day in February of this year that I went to the hospital to get my results. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. In my usual take charge way, I had mentally prepared myself for any bad news. Similar to the day that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, everything was moving in slow motion. I was in a daze, but remember things in vivid detail. I was on an emotional roller coaster as I sat in that hospital waiting room. Alone.

And it was with sweaty palms, like a prisoner in court awaiting the judge to read their verdict, that I sat across from the genetics councillor to get my results. After a few bits of information, that, frankly, I don’t even remember, she said the words I longed to hear: you tested negative for both genes.

Relief cannot amply describe my feelings, at that point. The information that followed was a blur as well. And when I left, my results on one piece of paper, neatly folded in my purse, I sat in my car and cried. Tears of relief, tears of gratitude and tears of joy. The emotions that had been cooped up for many months spilled out on my steering wheel and down my winter coat.

I know how it feels to be there. And even if you’re a movie star, those decisions remain the same.

Andrea Paine has been writing speeches for cabinet Ministers and members of the National Assembly and of Parliament throughout her years in politics. More recently, she turned her talents to writing an inspirational blog found at www.lifepowerblog.ca, and is a published author,  with a chapter in a book by British journalist, Chris Geiger.  Andrea has also been involved in public speaking, having been on the speaker’s circuit on behalf of the St-Mary’s Hospital breast cancer foundation in 2011, as well as a presenter, in 2012 and 2013, for the Federated Press Annual Conference on “Working with Ministers and Parliament” in Ottawa.

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  1. jules says:

    My mother had breast cancer back in 1966 and it was like boiling water fell on both mom and myself and I thought that I would literally lose her. I went crying over to her doctor’s office and couldn’t get hold of myself. I asked the doctor how long mom had to ive and he said that it was all in God’s hands and that each time that he operated he said that it was God that was leading his hands. That doctor was the former Dr. Ralph Randlett (the elder doctor Randlett) not Mary Jane. This was such a wonderful man and when his son died from a motor bike accident hit by a car that devastated me something awful and for Dr. Randlett to die as well.

    I am the same age as Angelina’s mother would be if she were alive. She is the daughter of Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand. I know what Angie went through with the death of her mother but my mom lived until age of 81 continuously battling cancer for many years. Angie made my husband’s newspapers back home in Lebanon and like the doctor said in the newspaper that every woman is different but she commends Angie for coming forward and opening up many women’s minds to this problem. Cancer runs on both my husband’s side of the family including my own as well as diabetes, heart, etc. A good diet helps and not the junk food that people eat. The microwave is a bad thing to have around as well – cook from scratch and make good food.

    There is no price to pay a doctor and it is more of a dedication than anything else. Nursing is a mighty hard profession and I feel the same way about them as well. We need to honor these people a lot more than what we do. There is no price for good health.

    Go out and walk on the paths in the parks and enjoy life since it is mighty short indeed.

  2. Jimmy Olsen says:

    Everyone’s going to hate this comment but I don’t know why breasts and particularly celebrity breasts (yes, OK, we all love breasts) command so much attention. Ms. J is equally at risk for ovarian cancer but I imagine if she’d chosen to have the ovaries cut out – which is equivalent to castration in males – she wouldn’t be called brave or be on the cover of Time magazine.

    Will her message to the public help women? Big question mark. But continued focus on breast and breast cancer may only eclipse the fact the leading cause of death in women are heart attacks and stroke….and some of the risk factors can also be related to genetic factors that can be dealt with prophylactically.

    Nobody goes terribly gaga over women (or men) surviving life-threatening and life-changing vascular events. It’s weird.

  3. Andrea Paine says:

    Hi Jules and Jimmy Olsen. Thank you for your comments. Jules….I feel your passion, and I’m sure the healthy lifestyle you have chosen for yourself will go a long way to prevent the this dreaded disease from touching you. Congratulations on that, and keep it up!

    Jimmy, I have already seen stories about Jolie intending on having her ovaries removed as well. You are right. Testing positive for BRCA1 or 2 also put you at greater risk for having ovarian cancer. As for Jolie’s “celebrity breasts”, I commend her for her choice on going public. Her popularity will help spread this information and knowledge to others, and empower them in their own discussions with their medical professionals. Whatever the disease or affliction, having that is key.

    I encourage women to have the courage to talk about their health battles, regardless whether it is breast cancer, or not. You never know whose life you will touch by doing so.

  4. jules says:

    Thank you Andrea Paine. Everybody’s metabolism is different. I have a daughter with hypothyroid disease and when we were in Cornwall all she did was want to sleep and not participate in anything. We wondered what was going on with her and we thought that it was mental depression. When we came to Ottawa we had her tested for all kinds of things and the doctor that we have is elderly (an Egyptian) and he took a full family history on both sides of our families. My husband’s eldest sister has thyroid problems and we found that out and the doctor made the tests at the Ottawa Civic Hospital and found out that my daughter was hyperthyroid. The hospital tried to get the thyroid down a little by giving her a radiated laced iodine pill and they took too much off and she became hypothyroid. She is on medication for life and she just did a blood test lately and next month to the doctor. I am telling all of you this since it is very important to go through tests and find out if any of you have this disease as well. Many people are afflicted including the Bush Sr’s both George and Barbara as well as Oprah Winfrey and many many others.

    Celebrities are no different than the rest of us folks out there and the only difference is that they carry a name that advertises themselves and makes people aware.

    A woman that worked with my daughter found out just lately that her mother has thyroid disease as well. People don’t be afraid to get tested. This is a hard disease to track as well. It is the process of examining the T cells. There is T3, T4, etc.
    Men get thyroid conditions as well and under different names so you men don’t think that you are immune to this. A little boy that I met at the doctor’s office (only 9 years old) had thyroid disease as well – it affects people of all ages.

    For some time now I heard that Angie was not well and didn’t know what was going on. Maybe this is more than just some cells that her mother has passed on to her but could be cancer itself. I made a long enough post so as to have everybody to be aware that anything can happen to the body and always get tested. Not all people are the same and what works on one may not be the same for another but at least Angie has come forward about her condition and it is a wake up call for everyone to be aware. I did meet a girl back in the days that my mom had cancer of the breast and she was adopted and had to go through having her ovaries removed because of tumors. Those were horrible times to go through and for anyone.

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