Three Things We Can Learn from Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie is making headlines again, however, it’s not because of her award-winning directing or celebrity husband. This time, it’s because of her brave decision to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to prevent ovarian cancer. Back in May of 2013, she had a preventative double mastectomy.

Making a life-changing medical decision like this is never easy and is deeply personal for Jolie and her family. While media attention around her decision stirs up emotions and some controversy, it also provides an opportunity for education.

Three things we can learn from Angelina Jolie

1) Know your risks.

Read: Beyond BRCA: 7 Keys to Breast Cancer Prevention

Watch: Angelina Jolie has ovaries, fallopian tubes removed after cancer scare

Jolie faced her risks head on when the unfortunate signs of cancer emerged all around her. Her mother died young at 56 from ovarian cancer. She also lost a grandmother and an aunt to cancer.

Jolie’s family history spurred her to get tested for the BRCA gene mutation—a defect in the gene that usually acts to suppress tumors.

The blood test showed she was positive for the mutation and with her family history factored in, doctors estimated that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime and a 50% chance for ovarian cancer. (Typical risks associated with BRCA mutations are a little lower—see here.)

Does this mean that every woman should run out and get BRCA gene mutation testing done?


In Jolie’s latest op-ed, she emphasizes, “A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery.” The NCI suggests that women consider testing if there is a family history of:

  • Breast cancer diagnosis younger than 50 years of age
  • Cancer in both breasts
  • Both breast and ovarian cancers
  • Multiple cases of breast cancer
  • Two or more primary types of BRCA1- or BRCA2-related cancers in a single family member
  • Cases of male breast cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity

If there is a living relative with one of these cancers, it may be most helpful to test them first.

Children should not be tested as there are no recommended measures of prevention even if they do test positive.

2) Sacrifice and be willing to make changes.

Most of us are “at risk” for something when we look at our family history and lifestyle choices. But we can turn the tide with our actions.

Jolie weighed her options and made the decision that she felt was right for her and her family. Her sacrifice took a lot of courage and boldness, and she is example to us all.

We can let it serve as inspiration when we make the little sacrifices and changes that add up to a big change in our own health journey.

It’s refreshing when my patients embrace recommended diet and lifestyle changes wholeheartedly. Once they see how much better they feel and how they’ve slashed their risk for certain diseases, they almost never turn back. It’s humbling and inspiring to play a part in their health journey and motivates me personally.

3) Investigate different approaches to medicine (East and West).

Angelina Jolie did her homework. Throughout the process, she has consulted not only with conventional doctors and surgeons but also practitioners with a more eastern slant.

From her oped:

“I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options. Some women take birth control pills or rely on alternative medicines combined with frequent checks. There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally.”

Everyone’s health journey is his or her own. Taking the time to investigate your health concerns and finding a practitioner that will partner with you on your journey will empower you with the knowledge and courage to tackle the hard decisions and do what is best for you.

What I have seen in my practice, my personal life and my patients is that when we take our health into our own hands, making it a priority in our life, we find strength in the process to love ourselves and others more fully.

While she advocates not that women follow exactly in her footsteps, Angelina is a great example for us all to do our homework, consult experts, and even make the tough sacrifices to stay on the journey to whole health.