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Angelina Jolie has gone public with a brave revelation: Earlier this year, she had a double mastectomy. The 37-year-old actress did not have breast cancer; rather, she tested positive for a "faulty" gene that dramatically increases her risks of breast and ovarian cancer. Because Angelina's mother Marcheline Bertrand died of ovarian cancer at age 56, Jolie decided to take dramatic preventative measures.
"I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience," Jolie writes in a New York Times op-ed. "Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action."
Jolie goes on to describe her three months of medical procedures, which involved the removal of her breast tissue and reconstruction with implants. "You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film," she acknowledges. "But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life."
Angelina is not the first celebrity to go public with her mastectomy; breast cancer survivors Sharon Osbourne, Kathy Bates, Giuliana Rancic and Christina Applegate are among the women who have had the procedure. However, Jolie is unusual, in that she had the major surgery as a preventative measure. Furthermore: As an international sex symbol, the actress had a lot to lose by revealing that she had her breasts removed.
"I do not feel any less of a woman," Jolie declares in her editorial. "I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."
She also takes a moment to acknowledge her partner, Brad Pitt, for being "loving and supportive" throughout the process.
"Brad was at the Pink Lotus Breast Center, where I was treated, for every minute of the surgeries. We managed to find moments to laugh together," says the actress. "We knew this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has."
By announcing her decision to the world, Jolie hopes to inspire others who "do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer." She encourages all women to get the same genetic testing she had; however, she also acknowledges that there are barriers. The blood test, for one, costs more than $3,000 in the United States. Then there's the cost of preventative surgery and breast implants; there is no federal law requiring insurance companies to to cover the procedure.
"It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live," Jolie writes.
With these words, Angelina Jolie has become an important advocate for women's health and affordable care. We've already seen her use her star power to encourage international adoption, raise awareness of refugees, and educate about global health. Will she be able to make a difference for those battling breast cancer, which kills nearly half a million people a year? We'd like to think so. If nothing else, she's bringing a very personal struggle out of the shadows, and making us all talk about women's health. That alone is huge.