The world buzzed yesterday with the news that Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy to greatly diminish her risk of breast cancer. I’ve been a fan for a long time, but she has my respect for the editorial she penned for the New York Times revealing her procedure. It’s intelligently written, explains the tests and procedures she went through, acknowledges other treatment options and choices, and thanks her loving family. It can be difficult to understand having such a dramatic procedure done with no sign of current illness, but as one woman who made the same choice put it, “If someone said your flight was 86% likely to come down, you wouldn’t get on that plane.”
With better knowledge about risk factors and a decrease in the cost of genetic testing, an increasing number of people are proactively seeking surgery with no evidence of disease. A presentation at the American College of Surgeons Annual Clinical Conference last year analyzed data on this trend from 2004-2009. The number of hospitalizations related to genetic susceptibility increased 16-fold during that time, and prophylactic surgeries more than doubled. Insurance plans are increasingly covering these surgeries as a cancer risk reduction strategy based on family history, pre-disease symptoms, and/or genetic testing. This policy sheet from provider Priority Health is one example; it describes criteria not only for prophylactic mastectomy but also removal of the ovaries, stomach, uterus, or thyroid.
Jolie isn’t the only public figure in the news recently for surgery to reduce illness risk. New Jersey governor Chris Christie revealed last week that he had undergone bariatric surgery in which a band is used to section off part of the stomach, reducing the quantity that can be eaten at one time. Though some have questioned his motive, Christie made this decision at age 50 and while morbidly obese, at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and concerns from joint problems to sleep disorders. Though the surgery isn’t a cure-all (I was told recently by a specialist in this area that more than 50% of the procedures now performed are revisions to previous surgeries; not because of a problem with the surgery, but to increase effectiveness for a patient who has stopped losing or started regaining weight), Christie has a good chance of dropping enough weight to make a significant difference in his risk of disease.
There are many issues to consider here and many frameworks that can be applied, but I’ve been thinking about identity. People who undergo major surgery as a risk reduction strategy will wear the scars and/or have lifestyle changes forever. Their lives are different because of a disease they feared, which becomes part of their embodied identity nonetheless. I think there must be an identity shift that precedes that, from seeing oneself as healthy to envisioning the body as vulnerable and imminently diseased. The presentation mentioned above noted an association between surgery-seeking and level of anxiety about disease. I wonder if that anxiety marks an identity borderline, from a woman who sees herself as fine but at risk and chooses vigilance and lifestyle alterations, for example, and one who sees herself as having a disease that hasn’t yet surfaced and seeks surgery to remove tissues already considered unhealthy.