published Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

David Cook: Jolie's decision

When thinking about Angelina Jolie's breasts, I did the only thing any man would do.

I thought some more.

Then I called my wife.

"Hello?" she said.

I told her the news: Tuesday, Jolie announced she had undergone preventive mastectomies. She had tested positive for the destructive BRCA1 gene; its presence enormously increases the risk of breast cancer.

So Jolie had both breasts surgically removed.

"My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent," Jolie wrote in Tuesday's New York Times op-ed piece. "I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer."

I wanted to know what my wife thought. Was she proud of Jolie? Would she make the same choice?

"If I were high risk," my wife said, "then I would do the same."

A large part of me stood tall when she said that. If cancer threatens, and the experts say a pre-emptive mastectomy is the best hand to play, then not yes, but heck yes.

But another part was deeply sad, and troubled with questions.

"Part of your womanhood [would be] taken away," my wife said. "I think it would be very traumatizing."

No other body part is so pervasive in our culture as the female breast.

It appears in films, advertisements, pornography, TV shows, commercials, lyrics, sidelines at pro football games, the bra sales in the Sunday paper.

Yet the female breast does not appear in public in a biological way. Its most natural function is stigmatized. How many women have you seen breastfeeding, proudly, in public?

Compare that number (zero) to the amount of sexualized media breasts we exhibit (a lot); we have celebrated the sexuality of the female breast but not its maternal biology.

Jolie, oddly, is a wedge in this dichotomy. She is the sex object and humanitarian aid hero and mother. Her act, while initiated by a medical condition, seems also political and social, symbolic of something, but I'm not sure what.

Are pre-emptive double mastectomies an act of feminine resistance against such a sexualized culture?

Are pre-emptive mastectomies becoming popular? Fashionable?

Are pre-emptive mastectomies an act of Amazonian power? (The story goes that Amazonian women cut off one breast so they could better throw their spears and draw their bows).

Are pre-emptive mastectomies a troubling sign, a disembodiment of the American woman?

Are pre-emptive mastectomies an act of prevention or a decision based in fear?

"When you've got a high risk, that increases your fear," Ann Law said.

Law, a mother and wife, is one of the wisest -- most alive -- people I know. Seven years ago, doctors told the dancer-founder of our city's Barking Legs Theater that she had cancer in her right breast.

She had one mastectomy. Then another.

"Seven weeks after my first one was removed, I went ahead and said: I'm not going to take a risk," she said.

Instead of reconstructive surgery, Law asked a friend to tattoo a passion flower across her chest. She then created a dance (passionflowerproject.com) about the experience.

"It was time to make art out of this chest," she said.

Making art out of cancer is an act of transformation and empowerment. Perhaps pre-emptive double mastectomies are as well.

Yet.

"Are young women going to jump on the boat way, way, way too soon and make this decision and block out a major part of their body that is full of sensuality and sexuality, not to mention breastfeeding your children?" Law asked.

Jolie opens her Times essay describing her mom, who died at 56 after fighting cancer for years. Jolie then mentions her own children.

"They have asked if the same could happen to me," Jolie wrote.

Now they won't have to.

I thought back to my own wife's reply: If I were high risk, then I would do the same.

And all I would say? I support you.

It's the same thing we should say to Jolie and all women with breast cancer, however they fight it.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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