Like Angelina Jolie, Allison Gilbert had two preventive cancer surgeries to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes and later her breasts
Gilbert:Jolie's disclosure about her surgeries has brought needed attention to this surgical option for carriers of insidious BRCA1 gene
Editor’s Note: Allison Gilbert is the author of “Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children.” She lost her mother, grandmother, and aunt to breast and ovarian cancer. Follow her on Twitter @agilbertwriter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
In 2007 I had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to prevent my getting ovarian cancer.
It was a surgery of the kind that Angelina Jolie recently underwent, as she revealed Tuesday in a New York Times op-ed. Two years ago, Jolie divulged that she’d had a prophylactic double mastectomy – I had done this as well, in 2012.
Along with the effects of the surgeries themselves, we now also share a related fallout: surgical menopause.
This change can be big and, for me, happened almost immediately. There is little easing into it: the age-inappropriate night sweats, hot flashes, weight gain, mood swings. When I had my ovaries removed at age 37, I suddenly felt less vibrant and beautiful, and instead experienced the slow creep of feeling old. What will this transition mean to someone like Jolie, so identified for her attractiveness and glamour? (She may keep that part of her transformation private, but – as with her disclosures about the surgeries – it might do some good to discuss that, as well.)
I’ve been talking and writing about BRCA1 since I learned more than 10 years ago that I carried this insidious, inherited genetic mutation. I’ve discussed how these operations have affected my relationship with my husband and our two children. But often it takes someone as public, as gorgeous, as famous as Ms. Jolie to powerfully move the conversation about cancer prevention surgeries forward.
Her transparency helps normalize the experience of women considering their own options. It chips away at the stigma surrounding this treatment decision and offers women a new shorthand for explaining such a difficult choice to their families.
When I underwent each of my surgeries a few friends looked at me sideways. They weren’t familiar with BRCA and or how surgery could statistically reduce my chances of developing cancer. Now Ms. Jolie has changed this.
Her willingness to share such intimate experiences means more people will become educated and more BRCA survivors will feel free to speak of their scars. And there are many resources for BRCA-positive women.
In June, I will be speaking at the annual FORCE conference (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered), which has partnered with another wonderful organization, the Basser Research Center for BRCA (part of the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania).
Both are leading the way in the scientific research and understanding of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. They also provide resources around risk assessment, prevention, early detection, treatment, and survivorship, as well as links to chat rooms and local support groups.
It’s not often a writer finds her circumstances so closely in sync with a Hollywood star. But I like to think Ms. Jolie and I, two women who truly have nothing in common, are linked in our determination to be proactive. We have looked fear in the face and made the only decisions that made sense for our families and our selves.