Opinion writer May 15, 2013

As it happens, I do not read op-eds written by celebrities, mostly because I don’t care what they think — if and when they ever do. It was for that reason that I went right by the New York Times op-ed written by Angelina Jolie and returned to it only after my sister called to talk about it. She has just finished a bout of (preventive) radiation to stop what could be breast cancer in its tracks. Jolie, she said, had done a wonderful thing. Yes, indeed.

Jolie wrote that she has had a double mastectomy — the removal of both breasts — because she has the ominous BRCA1 gene, which increases her chances of getting breast and ovarian cancer. In her case, she put the odds as an “87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.” She moved against the cancer before it could move against her — one hopes.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

Jolie not only has the BRCA mutation, but her mother died at 56, apparently of ovarian cancer, although in the op-ed Jolie said only cancer, not which type. Whatever the case, she has ample reason to have had a double mastectomy because within her lurks a killer. Women have to know about this genetic mutation. The more women who learn about genetic mutations, the more lives will be saved.

For me, there was a particular paragraph in Jolie’s piece that caught my eye. It went like this: “On April 27, I finished the three months of medical procedures that the mastectomies involved. During that time I have been able to keep this private and to carry on with my work.”

In other words, no one needed to know.

In other words, she could have had the surgery and have her breasts reconstructed and no one would have known.

In other words, she did not need to risk her status as a sex symbol and no one would have known otherwise. All the guys in the audience could watch her shoot her way out of some awful situation, leap over cars and — and after a short break — seduce a leading man and not have their fantasies affected by the knowledge that she has been surgically reconstructed.

A lifetime in journalism has given me passing knowledge of the Hollywood scene. Movie stars fear for their image. Rupert Everett probably trashed his career as a leading man by coming out as gay. ( Rock Hudson, among others, never did .) Jolie must have considered how her very public revelation of her condition might affect her career. This is an unknown, of course, but at many millions of dollar a picture, who would want to take the chance? She went ahead anyway, not because she’s a publicity hound but because she genuinely wanted to alert other women to the danger posed by certain genetic mutations. She wanted to save some lives, avoid some pain. It’s not a bad goal.

In December, I lost my long-time companion to cancer. A long time ago, I lost my aunt to cancer and, not even a year ago, I lost my best friend, a woman, to cancer as well. I know a little about this subject. I am in awe of what Jolie has done. I still am not going to read the op-eds of celebrities, but when her next movies opens, I’m going to be first on line.

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