Until recently, the only buzz about Angelina Jolie's body would have involved her voluptuous pout, her perfect cheekbones or — after the 2012 Oscars — that ubiquitous right leg. But yesterday, the focus shifted to a different part of her body when the 37-year-old actress penned an eloquent op-ed in the New York Times about her choice to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. According to some sources, preventive mastectomies, which don’t carry a 100% guarantee, have increased by about 50 percent in recent years.
To gain insight into Ms. Jolie's brave decision — and the emotional, physical and sexual implications of such a measure — we sat down with one of our own YourTango Experts, Dr. Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D.
Dr. Shosh (as she likes to be called) is a clinical psychologist, an author and a radio talk show host. She is also a breast cancer patient. She kindly let us pick her brain about the Angie op-ed, mastectomies, love and sex after radiation, and what it’s like to be in a relationship while dealing with the big C (whether or not your partner is Brad Pitt).
YourTango: Can you tell us a little about your history with cancer?
Dr. Shosh: Two years ago I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had a thyroidectomy. Then, just recently I was diagnosed with breast cancer and about six weeks ago I underwent a lumpectomy. It’s crazy because I've always considered myself a health nut, but you just never know.
YT: What was your initial reaction when you read Angelina Jolie’s op-ed?
DS: Good for her. I was interested that she was so public with her story, but I didn’t have an opinion about her choice. She did what she had to do for her family and so I basically just thought, good for her.
YT: Did you ever consider a full mastectomy as a preventive measure?
DS: No. As far as I know, I’m the first case of breast cancer in my family. I had a lumpectomy [after the diagnosis], which is a partial mastectomy, but anything more wasn’t necessary in my case. An ultrasound had caught my cancer in stage 1 and it was not an aggressive form. For me, a lumpectomy and radiation was enough.
YT: Do you think Jolie’s preventive double mastectomy was a little overboard or overly cautious?
DS: I think using the word 'overboard' implies some sort of judgment. How you feel about your treatment is important. She wanted peace of mind and also to protect her children. We have to support that. If there’s some medical basis for treatment and it relieves anxiety, then I think it's okay.
The truth is, you never know how you’re going to react until you're in those shoes. If someone had told me five years ago that I'd choose radiation for my body, I wouldn't have believed it. But I know that’s what's best for me now.
YT: One of the things Jolie mentions in her piece is the importance of the love she gets from her partner (who yes, happens to be Brad Pitt). Do you have a similar support system?
DS: Yes, my partner Joe has been very supportive and so have my sisters. Joe doesn’t offer an opinion, which is good. He knows that I'm going to choose what's best for me and he supports that.
YT: It’s evident that Jolie has taken special care to protect her family and make sure they feel comfortable with her treatment. Have you ever felt overwhelmed worrying about how Joe is handling your diagnosis and treatment?
DS: When I got the news I was not in fear. My attitude was more like, 'You've gotta be kidding!' But Joe was very emotional and scared. Being a therapist helped because I knew I couldn't take care of him. It wasn't my job. I could be compassionate and tell him I love him, but I couldn’t handle taking care of both of us at the same time. Joe leaned on his family in those times and I gave him some support-group numbers as well.
That being said, many women with stage 1 cancer do get a full mastectomy. That's the decision they make, and to each her own. My oncologist gave me all the options and it was a sobering two-hour appointment. He mentioned mastectomies, genetic testing, radiation, chemo, etc. It was pretty heavy. I don’t remember going right home after that. I think I shed a few tears and took a long walk in the woods.
The one thing that I turned down against my doctor's recommendation was a pill to block estrogen. I read about it and learned that it could cause osteoporosis. The thought of zero estrogen in my body was not a pleasant thought. I decided to take my chances. I need to do what I need to do, and let the rest go. Keep reading ...
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