Prince Philip awakened me yesterday, Tuesday, May 14, with the news about movie star, sex symbol and beauty icon Angelina Jolie having a preventive double mastectomy because she found she had the BRCA gene. About one in 500 women have a mutation in their genes called BRCA1 or BRCA2 and this mutation leads to an extremely high risk for cancers such as ovarian, breast and others. Jolie’s mother died of ovarian cancer and before her surgery, Jolie’s chances of contracting breast cancer was around 85%. It has now dropped to below 5%.
Now it’s important to say that although I have breast cancer in my family (my grandmother, aunt, and cousin on my dad’s side), I don’t have the BRCA gene as did Angelina Jolie. But I do have friends who do. A particularly important friend in my life lost her mom to breast cancer and both she and her sister have the BRCA gene. They both opted to have a preventive double mastectomy and an oophorectomy, surgery to remove their ovaries. My friend, like Jolie, also chose to have reconstruction of her breasts and in her words, even past her 40’s, she “looks like a Barbie doll”. Thank God for the times in which we live and what can be done surgically!
I am grateful to Jolie and her family for allowing her personal struggle to go public to help others become more aware of the extremely high risk of contracting a fatal cancer for those with the BRCA gene. I’m also grateful that she went public on her double mastectomy. In a culture which idealizes and idolizes women’s breasts — where we expose them, augment them, and capitalize them for entertainment and sordid public pleasure — it’s good to remember that breasts can, in an instant, be lost.
After my double mastectomy, I remember saying to Prince Philip that my view of women’s breasts had completely changed. When I saw a young woman wearing typically provocative Orange County clothing which revealed her large, probably augmented breasts, I wanted to go up and remind her that these things of which she was so proud could one day become her worst enemy — and that she could lose them. Then who would she be? Where would her identity rest?
Philip surprised me by saying that he also had also experienced a metamorphosis in his thinking about women’s breasts. For men in our culture, women’s breasts are all about sex-appeal and quite frankly, are a source of lust and a distorted view of women and beauty. But since mine had been cut off (sorry folks, but that’s the reality!), he also looked at our culture’s preoccupation with women’s breasts as sad, short-sighted, and dishonest. “Your beauty goes beyond all that,” he said. Yep, that’s my Prince Philip. So now when we are together and we see a big-breasted beauty flaunting her “assets”, we look at each other and say under our breath, “She could lose those in a second.” Sad, but true. Our view of women’s breasts has completely changed.
It’s odd but a few days ago I had nothing whatsoever in common with Angelina Jolie. This movie star, sex symbol, beauty icon and this Orange County chic pastor were as far apart as the earth is from the moon. But now, we are in some sense of the same people group. She may have a different life with different values than I do, but I know her better than some of her friends who have not lost their breasts.
I know what it’s like to have that piece of you that makes up such a big part of your womanhood taken from you. I know what it’s like to see my chest without womanly form and devoid of nipples. I know what it’s like to never have feeling in my chest again — those nerves have been cut out and away. I no longer have breasts, just numb, surgically produced “mounds” without feeling, no longer sensitive to touch for pain or pleasure.
But like Jolie, who had her mastectomy to help make sure her children had their mother for many years to come, I had my double mastectomy to make sure that the cancer which threatened my life, was taken, along with my breasts out of my body. My cancer was only in the right breast, but as with Angeline Jolie, I had a high likelihood of it invading my left breast also. The choice was not hard. Breasts or longer life? For me, for Prince Philip, the choice was not hard.
So, Angeline Jolie, my friend with the BRCA gene, thousands of other woman who have had to make this choice and me — we grieve our losses and move on with our lives, knowing that the dark angel of death called “cancer” doesn’t get the last word.
In a report on Angelina Jolie, one PR agent is quoted as saying that in her choice for a preventive double mastectomy, “She’s redefined beauty.” Sorry, buddy, Jolie didn’t redefine beauty. Real beauty has been there all along — it’s just that you and others didn’t have eyes to see it!
Today, if you are a woman with breasts, thank God for them, enjoy them, respect them, and take good care of them. And if you are part of my people group as a woman without one or two breasts, join me in thanking God for life — let’s enjoy it, respect it, and take good care of it! A mastectomy — single or double — is hard, painful and sad. But life without breasts is FAR better than the alternative.
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.