Folmsbee: Angelina Jolie Pitt is great for women’s health, poor for science


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Last week, actress and director Angelina Jolie Pitt penned an editorial in The New York Times called “Diary of a Surgery,” in which she reflects upon her decision to surgically remove her ovaries as a prophylactic measure to reduce her risk of cancer. Ovarian cancer is terrifying, deadly and overlooked by the public, and Jolie admirably provides an important evaluation of the medical and personal implications of such surgical interventions to prevent cancer. But she also makes a crucial error in her discussion — equating her team of medically trained and scientifically minded surgeons with the non-evidence-based practitioners of so-called alternative medicine.

This is not the first time Jolie has waded into the thorny arena of surgery to prevent cancer. In 2013, she wrote a column explaining she has a genetic mutation that places her at a higher risk for breast cancer and her decision to have a double mastectomy. This kind of advocacy to promote the issue of women’s health on such a deep level is an absolute necessity, and her follow-up piece concerning ovarian cancer is just as essential. Although breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, ovarian cancer can be much more deadly. Despite the fact that it is only the 8th most common cancer, ovarian cancer has an incredibly high mortality rate and is responsible for nearly 15,000 deaths per year.

For too long, awareness of ovarian cancer has languished in the pink shadow of breast cancer advocacy, and Jolie’s latest writing clearly demonstrates that women’s health cannot and should not be pigeonholed into a single illness. Because mastectomy and oophorectomy, the surgical removal of ovaries, are so effective in reducing cancer risk in such genetically susceptible individuals, Jolie does an excellent job in promoting their application.

Furthermore, she also provides a frank and much-needed discussion on the nature of women’s health and femininity. Her insight showcases how women need not be defined by their secondary sex characteristics or ability to reproduce, both of which deserve to be buried with all other such constructs of an oppressive patriarchy. Jolie should be praised for placing importance on her own well-being, weighing the balance of the value of her children, spouse, and parents, as well as being thoughtful about such an important decision.

But alarmingly, she also, perhaps unwittingly, legitimizes so-called alternative medicine practitioners. While discussing the complex medical decision making required for such an invasive procedure, she states that she has “spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths.” In that one sentence, she incorrectly equates those professions. Doctors and surgeons have spent a formidable chunk of their lives training to be healthcare professionals — four years of medical school, years of residency training and specialty training and passing rigorous licensing exams and continuing medical educational requirements. All of this is done to ensure these people, whose jobs are to keep us alive, are held to a high standard of quality.

Naturopaths, on the other hand, do not attend medical school, practice a form of clinical care not based in science or evidence and do not have the same formalized residency or specialty training programs. However, a disturbingly high number of states are beginning to license them as “naturopathic physicians.” Doctors and surgeons are required to understand the scientific nature of the genetic mutations present in their patients, the clinical studies showing the risks and benefits of ovarian surgery, and the importance of the individual patient’s physical and psychological well-being. Do naturopaths even need to know where the ovaries are?

And Jolie follows this notion with an even more upsetting idea. She writes that, in regards to choosing alternatives to surgery, “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.” She argues that the very real and very science-based way of treating hormonal therapy with birth control pills, which is still less effective than oophorectomy, could be easily exchanged with “alternative medicines,” a term that she does not define. Unfortunately, the delicate and nuanced real discussion of weighing surgery and medical intervention in these individuals has been muddled by the presence of non-science-based healthcare.

Jolie provided a great service in showing that women’s health is complex, worthy of discussion and absolutely necessary to advance better decision-making in an increasingly science-based medical practice. She also demonstrated that the surgical removal of her ovaries and breasts can be a part of a normal, healthy, full and feminine life. But she also endorses the normalcy of so-called alternative medicine, a dangerous idea that is counterproductive to our ability to use the best science-based medicine to prevent these very kinds of cancers in women.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].