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What Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy means to breast cancer advocates

From Betty Ford to Robin Roberts to Christina Applegate, the breast-cancer community has had no shortage of high-profile advocates. But when Angelina Jolie announced Tuesday that she had a double mastectomy — not yet diagnosed with cancer, but carrying a gene that put her at severely high risk — the news hit like a tidal wave.

It dominated the most-read rankings of news sites and the cable-news conversation for the day. Tributes poured in from British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has worked with the movie star on refugee issues, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who had the same surgery. A CNN anchor, Zoraida Sambolin, went public with her own plans for a double mastectomy this month: Jolie’s announcement “gives me strength,” she wrote, “and an opening.”

This isn’t just any old movie star, after all. Jolie is in a “rarefied league” when it comes to using her fame for humanitarian causes, said the Enough Project’s John Prendergast, who traveled with her to Congo in 2004. Beyond commanding media attention, “politicians are eager to meet with her and listen to the issues she is addressing”; she can get meetings at places like the International Criminal Court and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But in shifting focus from the global to the personal, one of the most famous women in the world (and with fiancé Brad Pitt, half of one of the most famous couples) struck a special chord with cancer activists.

“I was just so proud!” Nancy Brinker told us. The founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure — who had a double mastectomy at the same age as Jolie — said a few decades ago, “it would not have been the norm for someone of Angelina’s stature to come out and talk about having this disease, having preventive surgery like this. It’s a real testimony to her and to the journey we’ve all gone in the last 30 years.”

Jolie, 37, revealed her recent medical journey — three months of surgeries, culminating in reconstructive surgery — in a New York Times op-ed. She wrote that her mother Marcheline Bertrand’s death at 56 from ovarian cancer nudged her to get genetic testing; she learned she has a BRCA1 gene mutation, carrying a high likelihood of both breast and ovarian cancer.

“I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex,” the Oscar winner and mother of six wrote. Somehow, one of the most closely paparazzi-stalked personalities managed to keep the matter private and “carry on with my work,” she wrote. (She finished filming “Maleficent” recently; in April, she attended the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London to discuss rape in war zones.) Now, “my chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.” She went public, she said, “because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience.”

Lots of stars have talked about their cancer in recent years — why is Jolie’s voice resonating? Karen Kramer, vice president of marketing for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, said the star helps fill a void in the awareness of hereditary cancer. Ninety percent of women with heightened family risk don’t realize it, she said. “People didn’t talk about the ‘big C’ word years ago, so past generations didn’t pass that [knowledge] down.”

Plus, when a woman as famous for her knockout body as Jolie takes the bold step of having her breasts removed, it could make the process less fearful for other women mulling the surgery.

“It makes a difference,” Kramer said, “in there not being a stigma attached to it.”

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