First, let me say this: I think that Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a preventative double mastectomy to address her exceptionally high risk of breast cancer and buy more time to be a mother to her children was brave. So, too, was her sharing that decision publicly, and using it to frame a much-needed discussion about cancer, treatment options and affordable healthcare for women.
Problem is, the mainstream TV shows, newspapers and websites reporting on Angelina’s decision were so focused on the A-list actress’s breasts that all-too-many seemed to miss the larger point entirely: gene testing, preventative mastectomies and breast reconstruction—hell, options for preventing, treating and surviving breast cancer—is an affluent and mostly white woman’s bet, one that eludes poor and working women of color with little to no insurance, job security and the cash needed to buy those options.
Credit due to Angelina for at least trying to start the conversation in her New York Times op-ed, in which she detailed her discovering her breast cancer probability through gene testing:
I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. 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…
Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.
All up in between those lines was Angelina’s acknowledgement that there are options for identifying and preventing breast cancer, but you’ve got to have the cash to get it done. The test, alone, would be completely inaccessible, to, say the grocery store worker who brings home a paltry $400 a week after taxes, which makes it hard for her to afford even a simple mammogram. And trust: the school janitor, or the sister at the McDonald’s drive-thru or your auntie answering phones at that secretarial job wouldn’t be able to secure the three months needed to have her breasts removed, heal from the surgery and then go back under the knife for reconstructive surgery and implants—no matter how many of the relatives that came before her were diagnosed with, treated for or died from breast cancer. Those who lord over blue collar workers aren’t nearly as understanding as, say, a Hollywood producer or a company president who can spare a top manager.
Truth be told, a woman of color or of limited means would have a higher chance of having her breast cancer detected late because insurance doesn’t want to cover the screening, and dying because said company would be more concerned about treating the disease on the cheap rather than to make sure that the patient got the world-class service that Angelina got. Indeed, when it comes to women of color, the news is all the more dire: research presented by The American Association for Cancer Research just last month suggested that tumor makeup and methods for treating them may vary by race. This is a reality that makes it harder to treat breast cancer in black women, simply because race-specific research is scarce and black women are woefully absent from mainstream studies that focus mainly on white women. Add poverty, silence and racial inequalities to the mix and it’s no wonder that beast cancer mortality rates for women of color continue to soar.
Mind you, all of this is happening, despite that those pink ribbons are plastered on everything from eggs to panties, and billions of dollars have been collected in the name of breast cancer research that cancer charities claim will help prevent and “find a cure” for the disease.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if those reporting on Angelina Jolie’s radical, preventative double mastectomy decision stopped doing slow pans of her boobs and actually focused on those things—things that actually affect the real-life health experience of the average American working woman? What a concept.