Angelina Jolie, breast cancer, and fear

Benjamin Life on Planet Earth

I do not claim that Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she had a double mastectomy is the most important story of the week. An excellent commentary on this has been published in On The Square over at First Things, so I am not going to duplicate what she had said.

To put the matter very simply, the decision to cut off a healthy part of your body is not acceptable unless it is absolutely necessary. Doctors could not (and did not) tell Ms. Jolie that it was absolutely certain that she would get breast cancer: they only said that she had a high risk of getting breast cancer. While I totally appreciate Angelina Jolie’s desire to be there for her children and spare them, and herself, from the ravages of cancer, there are a number of far less damaging ways to reduce the risk of cancer.

It is disturbing to amputate a healthy body part, but this kind of amputation is disturbing because it touches on something unique to womanhood. The ability to breastfeed an infant (even if you never do) is a part of femininity and a sign of what a woman is made for: to give life and to nourish life.

Angelina Jolie fails to appreciate the full value of womanhood when she says that her choice “in no way diminishes my femininity.” Her statement is based on the fact that the surgeons carefully removed the breast tissue while leaving the skin, and she was then given implants. Her statement, however, is only true if breasts are nothing more than curves of flesh with nipples. Breast are more than this: they speak of the call to motherhood. When we disconnect womanhood from the call to motherhood, we run the risk of reducing women to little more than a curve of flesh with nipples. [That specific cancer, it is sad to say, is far advanced in our society]

St. Agatha contemplates Angelina Jolie's choice.

St. Agatha contemplates Angelina Jolie’s choice.

The last thing I want to say is that running through Angelina Jolie’s article is a palable sense of fear. She says, “Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness.” She concludes her article by saying, “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”

Fear makes us recognize that we are weak, and the natural response to fear is to reach out for power, and this is exactly what Angelina Jolie did. The medical procedure gave her a feeling of control over her own health. This is exactly the opposite of a Christian response to fear: the Christian response is to humble ourselves, overcoming the fear with trust in God’s love for us. This trust is rooted in the hope of the resurrection: “even if cancer kills me, God will raise me up to eternal life.” It is faith in the resurrection of Jesus that casts out fear.

This is the reason why I chose to comment on this event: we live in frightening times, and we must learn how to conquer fear with faith.

The sadest part about Angelina Jolie’s choice is that she has not conquered her fear, but she has only kept it at bay for a while. As she admits in her article, she is still at risk for ovarian cancer, and she is still at risk for many other diseases as well. There is only so much she can cut to keep ahead of disease: I pray she finds another way to fight her fears.