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First published on ANH-europe.org
Depending on where you look, Angelina Jolie's decision to have a double mastectomy as a protective measure against breast cancer is being described as incredibly brave, amazingly ill-informed or unbelievably greedy and manipulative. We take a look at some of the issues raised by this larger-than-life story.
Just the facts, ma'am
Last week, it emerged that Angelina Jolie had had a double mastectomy to drastically reduce her future chances of developing breast cancer, declaring that she, "Feel[s] empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity". Jolie's DNA carries a mutation in the DNA repair-related BRCA1 gene, which is strongly linked to breast cancer development – the risk in her case, according to her doctors, was a whopping 87%. Opting for such radical surgery has, they assure her, reduced her breast cancer risk to under 5%.
Furthermore, Jolie had a strong family history of cancer. Her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died of ovarian cancer in 2007, and Jolie's own lifetime ovarian cancer risk has been estimated at 50%. Reportedly, Jolie is considering oophorectomy to remove her ovaries as well.
Mainstream cancer and Hobson's choice
In many ways, this episode clearly illustrates the essential parameters and limitations of the cancer orthodoxy. To much of mainstream medicine, cancer is an overwhelmingly genetic disease: as one cancer specialist put it in a 2012 BBC Horizon documentary, "Cancer is part of the price we pay for being human". The danger of this mindset is that it almost inevitably herds the patient toward a highly unappetizing ultimate destination.
If you've got a BRCA1 mutation like Ms Jolie, your risk of eventually contracting breast cancer is increased; if you are one of the unfortunate individuals with a particularly high-risk mutation, again like Ms Jolie, your risk goes through the roof. At this point, your choices – according to the mainstream paradigm – boil down to doing nothing, and attacking breast cancer when it occurs using chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery; or using preventive mastectomy to reduce your stratospheric breast cancer risk to reassuring single figures.
At this point, the dilemma of choosing between two highly unpleasant options becomes more of a Hobson's choice: a choice between radical treatment or nothing, and probable death.
Misrepresenting the state of gene science
As others such as Sayer Ji of GreenMedInfo have pointed out, Ms Jolie's options were never as stark as she painted them, despite her passing reference to, "Many wonderful holistic doctors working on alternatives to surgery". For a start, ascribing a distinct breast cancer risk to the pair of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes appears to overlook the fact that the 'one gene–one protein' hypothesis has long since been disproven. As we have pointed out in the past, "Science is nowhere near conclusively explaining how the cell turns so few genes into so many different proteins, nor to mapping what potential effects the organism may experience when even small numbers of genes are altered."
The emerging field of epigenetics, most simply defined as how our environment affects the way our genes are expressed, tells us that we are not slaves to our genes. Even for people like Angelina Jolie, with a supposedly high-risk gene mutation, eating the right anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating foods, making the right lifestyle choices and finding effective ways to avoid both stress and environmental pollutants can ensure that the defective gene never wreaks its effects in the body. In fact, it is the bodily terrain that determines whether cancer develops: "There is growing realization that cancer is not primarily a genetic disease, but an epigenetic response to chronic stress".
Bearing all this in mind, we have to ask: just how 'well informed' was Angelina Jolie's decision to have her breasts surgically removed to prevent breast cancer? Doubtless she had the best – or at least, the most expensive – doctors close at hand. But if they're wedded to the 'genetic determinism' theory of cancer, and either unaware or dismissive of other viewpoints, Ms Jolie will have heard only one side of the story.
A new low?
Yet there's an even darker side to this story – more than one, in fact. Several days after Jolie's original piece appeared in the New York Times, the team at Natural News revealed three important effects of her announcement:
- It caused many more women to request the same BRCA1 genetic testing procedure
- It caused the stock price of Myriad Genetics – which charges $3,000–4,000 per test, having patented BRCA1 and BRCA2 some time ago – to increase by 3%
- It may influence the decision of the US Supreme Court, due this summer, as to whether Myriad's BRCA gene patents – and human gene patents in general – are valid.
If Angelina Jolie has willingly agreed to use her enormous fame and instantly recognizable celebrity status as a way of boosting a mere stock price, it must go down as one of the tawdriest deals in human history. It makes more sense, from the level of elite manipulations, if Ms Jolie's involvement has been secured in order to influence the Supreme Court. After all, a recent analysis revealed that patent claims cover almost the entire human genome, and if the Supreme Court finds against Myriad, it could, "Dismantle the entire human gene patenting industry, affecting trillions of dollars in future profits". Just as tawdry, then, but on a vastly bigger scale.
The body as enemy
However, the ultimate effect of Ms Jolie's very public mastectomy may be even more insidious. Although by no means the first, Ms Jolie is by far the most well-known personality to opt for a preventive mastectomy. In our celebrity obsessed era, it is inevitable that many women, particularly those with a family history of breast cancer, will not only seek out genetic testing – helpfully made more accessible by certain governments – but seriously consider prophylactic removal of their breasts as well.
It won't stop at breasts, either – or even women. Like Jolie, many at-risk women will consider removing their ovaries to prevent cancer, and since BRCA1 mutation also increases the risk of prostate cancer, her story may also serve to normalise preventive prostate removal. One such request has apparently already been made by a London businessman, although it appears to have pre-dated Jolie's announcement and his prostate was eventually removed because cancer was present.
Theater of the absurd
Are we on the verge of entering the theatre of the absurd? Is Ms Jolie's public decision a step along the road to a world where our bodies are the enemy, and where we think nothing of lopping off our most intimate parts 'just in case' they turn cancerous? Where safe, healthy, powerful and non-mutilating cancer-preventive strategies like diet and intermittent fasting are ignored in favor of the surgeon's knife? And where, depending on this summer's court decision, nearly our entire genome is under corporate control?
We shall see – but at the very least, Ms Jolie's announcement has opened a considerable can of worms.