What we can all learn from Angelina Jolie's op-ed


The Importance of Being Aware of Ovarian Cancer Symptoms
The Importance of Being Aware of Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

I have always wondered what it would be like to be Angelina Jolie. The stardom, the lips, the jet-set life and the sexy husband – it's hard not to be curious. She does everything well, not just the acting and the producing, but the mothering and the humanitarianism. She had a bunch of kids including twins, and her body is still incredible. I had a bunch of kids including twins, and there are parts of me too closely resembling a deflating bouncy house. She walks through the city with six kids in tow and looks like an ad for Prada. I walk through the city with five kids in tow and look like an ad for birth control.

Yes, I kind of wanted to be Angelina Jolie – until recently. Like Jolie, my mother died of ovarian cancer and like her, I struggle with the best way to prevent this aggressive disease, so I may see my children grow.

Ovarian Cancer - Mortality and Incidence by Year HealthGrove

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Jolie wrote of her decision to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes surgically removed. A blood test revealed the possibility a tumor, too small to see, was growing. This comes just two years after she underwent a double mastectomy, a decision she made after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene. Having this gene gave her about an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer.

You may wonder why she didn't just have her ovaries removed two years ago. Most of us would think it much easier to say goodbye to our ovaries – especially with six children – than it would be to say goodbye to our breasts. But, while a mastectomy is a serious surgery, it's long-term effects, not to minimize them as they are horrible, are mostly cosmetic and psychological.

The bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes), albeit an easier surgery, sent Jolie, at only 39 years old, into early menopause. This will have long-term effects on her health, physical well-being and psyche. Doctors will combat this with hormonal treatments, but it won't be easy on her.

Despite the ill effects, she made the right decision – for her. In her particular case, I do not see how any other course of action would have been prudent. Her mother died at the very young age of 49, she carries the BRCA1 gene, and she had warning signs of early cancer. She has six children she needs to raise and a long, beautiful life to live. She's married to Brad Pitt, after all – she has to see that one through! Angelina Jolie made a difficult, but wise decision.

Ovarian Cancer - Treatment Options HealthGrove

There are two take-aways from her struggle.

  1. Every patient, every person is different. Jolie makes this very clear in her op-ed, but let me reiterate. You may have cancer in your family, but you do not necessarily need to schedule surgery. Talk to your doctor, and if you are not happy with the answer, get a second opinion.

  2. Know your body and be aware of the warning signs of ovarian cancer. Protect your health. It is the most valuable thing you own.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain

  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

  • Urinary symptoms including urgency or frequency

Other symptoms, which are considered less specific, are fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities.

Yes. I can read your thoughts. What woman, especially as we age or after having children, doesn't have these symptoms? I realize you can't run to the doctor every time you feel a little bloated, but if you are experiencing any of these symptoms on a regular basis, and you can't explain them away easily, please make an appointment with your doctor. Be an advocate for your own health.

I would love to ignore the risk. What woman has time to take care of herself? Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury to pretend these cancers are not a real threat. Each woman needs to understand her own risk, needs to be mindful of her own body and needs to know the warning signs. I must applaud Angelina Jolie for being so open about her decisions. Cancer is something to rail against, not something to fear.

More from Dr. Karen Latimer:
The number 1 killer of women
The best ways to fight the flu
Why you shouldn't wait to vaccinate your kids