It was around midnight when the guest Op-Ed by actress and human rights activist Angelina Jolie went up on the New York Times website. Within minutes I had posted the link on Twitter and emailed friends on the West Coast about it.
The 37-year-old Oscar-winning Jolie has been called the most beautiful woman in the world by People magazine, the Sunday Times and Vanity Fair. She is also undoubtedly one of the world’s sexiest women, appearing at the Oscars in a dress slit up to there.
Her much-touted beauty made her opinion piece titled "My Medical Choice" truly shocking. Jolie revealed she had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy after discovering she carried the same genetic marker for breast cancer as her mother, actress Marcheline Bertrand, who died of the disease at 56 after a decade-long battle.
Jolie explained that she had made the decision for her children: She didn’t want them to fear losing her the way "Mommy’s mommy" had been lost.
With a mix of sadness and awe, I read Jolie’s description of how she chose to have her breasts removed, including the process of testing to see if she could keep her nipples (the diciest part of reconstructive surgery), the insertion of drains and then the rebuilding of her breasts so that they looked the way they had before with just a few scars.
I had just turned 26 when a persistent irritation in my right breast sent me to the doctor. I remember the look on her face as she examined me. I turned my head to look away from her and saw my lacy black bra draped over my blouse on the chair.
When I was dressed she told me, "There’s something. You need to get it checked." I got out my date book–-as a reporter, I had little free time during the day.
She put her hand out and pushed it down.
"No, now," she said.
I was sent to a different part of the hospital to see another doctor–to this day I don’t remember what he was–gynecologist? Breast specialist?
I lay flat on the table, my apprehension mounting, as he examined me. He pulled a plastic card out of his pocket and held it up. It had graduated-sized holes in it. He pointed to the largest one on the card, about the size of a small plum or a child’s fist.
"You have a tumor this size," he said, with less drama than if he were telling me I had a tear in my stocking. "You need to see a surgeon right away."
Then he left the room.
I lay there for a minute, maybe more. Tears ran down the sides of my face into my hair and onto the paper covering of the exam table. I never felt that tumor in my breast. I had only been aware of a tugging sensation beneath the underwire of my bra.
Within an hour’s time I was sitting in a surgeon’s office with a big manila envelope in my lap that held the images from my first-ever mammogram. It was a little after five in the afternoon.
The surgeon told me I would need to have surgery right away. Again, I pulled out my date book and again, a hand went out to push it down as she said, "I’ve cleared my schedule for tomorrow morning, first thing."
Not more than 12 hours later, in that cruel dark before dawn, I took a cab back to the hospital and had the first of what would be several breast surgeries.
I didn’t have the test Jolie had. I did know that there was a history of cancer in my family, but I was unsure what it was exactly, because the silence around cancer in my parents’ generation was still entrenched. I did know that my great aunt had breast cancer and that my father’s grandmother had died of it when my grandmother was a small girl–the only girl in a family of brothers. I knew that she had literally died screaming in agony in the bedroom of my grandmother’s house.
Even as a feminist and a reporter, that’s what I knew about breast cancer at 26. That my great-grandmother died at 37, screaming, as my seven-year-old grandmother listened downstairs.
No one suggested to me that I have a prophylactic mastectomy. I was only 26, and my surgeon, an attractive woman who was also a sculptor and always wore pearls in the operating room ("The one time I didn’t, things went badly.") told me I would be fine, she had gotten it all out.
I saw the tumor. It was in a plastic container and was, just like I envisioned that large hole in that doctor’s little card, the size of a small plum or a child’s fist. But it was out of me. In its place was a drain with a bulb at the end that leaked blood and lymphatic fluid for a week or so. My surgeon had told me I was lucky, the tumor was up against my chest wall, which meant she could cut me from the underside of my breast, so that the scar would be hidden.
It took a full 18 months–just long enough for me to get confident and comfortable–for the tumor to grow back.
This time the surgery was more intense, and my bravado less.
I was still only 27.
It was less than a year before my third breast surgery. This time my surgeon told me that I would need an implant, which I had previously avoided. "Do I have to?" I asked, because I had heard about silicone migrating and the implant worried me.
Yes, she told me, otherwise my breast would look "like a windsock."
We opted for saline.
I was fortunate. I had no recurrences for years after that third surgery. The last time I saw her, she told me I was "golden" and she thought I would be okay.
A year later she was diagnosed with breast cancer, herself.