Angelina Jolie got genetic testing for breast cancer. Will you?
It may seem absurd to seek medical testing just because a Hollywood star does, but celebrities do have significant influence over the general public.
As Jolie herself wrote in her op-ed piece in The New York Times on Tuesday, she wanted to go public with the news that she had a preventative double mastectomy after learning she carried a BRCA1 gene that increased her risk of breast cancer to help other women.
“I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience,” she wrote. “Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”
Celebrities have often shared their own experiences or those of loved ones with the hope of promoting public understanding of various medical conditions. Consider Canadian actor Michael J. Fox, who has become a champion for Parkinson’s disease research and awareness since being diagnosed himself. Or actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has sparked public dialogue about bipolar disorder after revealing she has the condition.
In many cases, having a star openly discuss medical issues can help eliminate the stigma associated with them, and may even prompt others to seek testing or treatment themselves.
If you had any doubt about the clout that celebrities wield (for better and, in some cases, for worse), just think of how Gwyneth Paltrow has inspired legions of followers to re-examine their diets and possible food sensitivities, how Jenny McCarthy sparked dubious fears about childhood vaccines, and how the number of women giving birth by cesarean section has increased, possibly inspired in part by Hollywood moms who have promoted the notion of being “too posh to push.”
In Jolie’s case, her op-ed piece has already prompted some to consider following her lead.
“One of the most powerful op-ed pieces that I have read. It really brings home to me how important it is to be tested for the BRCA1 gene,” one commenter wrote on The New York Times site.
Another woman who said she carried the gene added: “I have been trying to decide when not if [to have preventative surgery] … Angelina Jolie is the world’s icon of a beautiful woman, so when she has the courage to do something like that and share it with the world, then, the simple press and exposure helps the rest of the BRCA carriers to be viewed as less ‘extreme’ when we do face the decision to do life altering and possibly life changing surgeries.”
Meanwhile, according to Reuters, Jolie’s announcement encouraged CNN anchor Zoraida Sambolin to open up about her own plans to have a double mastectomy. “I struggled for weeks trying to figure out how tell you that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was leaving to have surgery,” Sambolin wrote on her Facebook page, Reuters reports. “Then … Angelina Jolie shares her story of a double mastectomy and gives me strength and an opening.”
But some also worry that Jolie may inspire panic. According to Forbes contributor David Kroll, BCRA gene mutations occur in only a small portion of breast cancer patients.
“My primary concern is that some women with breast cancer may think that they are not being aggressive enough with their current treatment plan. In cases where women are being newly diagnosed, I’m concerned that they might immediately [feel] the need to have a double mastectomy. In other cases, I’m concerned that the fear of a double mastectomy might preclude some women from their yearly mammogram and self-examinations,” he wrote.
He added: “For all the bravery of Ms. Jolie and the positive groundswell that her op-ed generates, I also want to be sure that women with breast cancer – women who are already scared – do not feel the extra burden that they’re not doing enough if they don’t consider a double mastectomy.”
The impact of her message aside, the way in which she's announced the news certainly indicates the control she has over her public image. While all celebrities try to control their image, Jolie is better at it than most, says etalk's Lainey Lui.
The fact that she chose to reveal the details of her ordeal in The New York Times, rather than People magazine, and the fact that she's written about it in her own words instead of discussing it in an interview demonstrates the level of strategy involved in building and maintaining her public persona, Lui says. Over the years, Jolie has taken careful steps to ensure people think of her primarily as a mother and humanitarian over her role as a movie star. She has done so, Lui says, by limiting the opportunities the press has to photograph her to outings with her children or events involving her humanitarian work with the United Nations.
Lui notes it is also remarkable that Jolie was able to prevent any leaks to the press about her surgery and to manage her own message.
"Very few celebrities can do that now," Lui says, noting that other stars could learn from Jolie by being more deliberate and restrained about their media exposure. "She really understands her brand. Nobody markets themselves better than Angelina Jolie."