Hollywood actress and director Angelina Jolie has been in the media a lot recently over her decision to have a preventative/pre-emptive double mastectomy and, more recently, to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. She decided to have the surgeries after she discovered that she carried a gene that gave her an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of developing ovarian cancer.
While the media has been busy hailing her bravery and courage, such reportage eclipses the reality of her immense privilege. Jolie is not the average American woman. She is a multi-millionaire that can afford to have these surgeries in the first place and also to pay for the expensive reconstructive breast surgery and hormone replacement therapy required afterwards; not to mention paying for the expensive genetic screening tests. Millions of American women do not have adequate health insurance or income to make these procedures an option. And even if insurance providers did cover the double mastectomy, it is unlikely they would cover the cost of reconstructive surgery, which would be considered purely cosmetic in a situation where cancer does not actually (yet) exist. Angelina Jolie’s class—yes, I used the forbidden word class—and immense wealth essentially makes it easier for her to be “brave” enough to have her breasts removed preemptively, knowing that she can afford world-class reconstructive surgery afterwards. Also, some medical professionals feel that promoting invasive and drastic pre-emptive surgeries can promote fear and extreme measures in women who carry the cancer gene (and even some that don’t) but may never actually develop the disease.
Rather than simply highlight the plights and courage of multi-millionaires, stories such as Jolie’s should spark dialogue—including by Jolie herself—about the dismal state of public health care—or lack there of—in a country that regards itself as “number one” in the industrialized world. While the US is the world’s dominant power, it remains one of the only “first world” nations where many or most people cannot even afford cancer treatment let alone hope to have access to radical preventative tests and procedures. As a Canadian I am not fully aware of the US health care system (in Canada, cancer treatment is universally paid for through the public health care system, which the people pay for through their taxes) but I do know of some American friends suffering from breast cancer who are having a hard time getting access to chemotherapy and radiation treatments for lack of insurance.
That is the reality of many (or perhaps even most) people in the US. It is a reality that is far removed from that of Jolie and the uber-rich. Rather than focus on wealthy celebrities that have very very little in common with the general population, we should talk about the increasing austerity and lack of spending that plagues everything from health to education and employment. Until Angelina Jolie has the “courage” to speak publicly about that, and about the right of common people to have access to health care and cancer treatment, we should not be rushing to praise the mega-rich for exercising their privilege.
While I do not doubt that she made these decisions for the sake of her family and children, her recent statement that [with these surgeries], “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer,” is an example of her unique privilege. For while she may be fortunate enough to guarantee that her young children will not lose their mommy to ovarian or breast cancer, there are thousands of children (of less privileged women) who will! While loads of cancer deaths are unpreventable, some women (and men) could have been saved with early screening and diagnostics, things many people are not financially privileged enough to have access to. It would be nice if these important social issues were discussed alongside celebrity worship/heroism.