Erin Zammett Ruddy - Author. Writer. Blogger. Survivor.
  • Why I’m Now Team Angelina

    May 14th, 2013


    Staying healthy for my two (and a quarter) kids is always on my mind.

    Staying healthy for my two (and a quarter) kids is always on my mind.

    By now you’ve probably heard about the op ed Angelina Jolie wrote for The New York Times about her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy (if you haven’t, take a second to check it out now). I read it this morning over coffee and I cried through most of it. As a cancer patient and a mother and a daughter and an advocate for cancer research and prevention, it touched me on so many levels. I think any mom has those moments when she fears she won’t be there to see her children grow up but when you have cancer—or you’ve lost a parent to cancer, as Angelina did—that fear is much more palpable. I literally can’t even type the words without crying. Of course I’m currently off my life-saving cancer medication and 14-weeks pregnant with my third child, so all of the maternal worries and what-ifs are definitely on the front burner. I’d be lying if I said my mind didn’t drift to those dark places lately where I picture saying the impossible goodbyes and Nick raising our three children on his own. We’ve even had the super-fun conversations where I insist that after a respectable period of mourning, he remarry (so long as she doesn’t look like Angelina Jolie). Over the past 11 years, I’ve had countless bone marrow biopsies and blood tests and each time I wait for the results, even though deep down I know I’m fine, I wonder if this will be the time my luck runs out. You better believe if there were some way to (literally) cut that risk down to nearly nothing, I would do it.

    We’re constantly reading about what Angelina Jolie does for the international community but I love that she’s brought her do-gooder abilities stateside to help the millions of women affected—and potentially affected—by these cancers. She could have very easily kept her very personal decision private but she didn’t and that, to me, is worthy of all the praise she’s getting today.

    “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,” she wrote in the op ed.

    Giuliana Rancic, Christina Applegate and Sheryl Crow are some of the many celeb moms who’ve gone public with their breast cancer battles, which is awesome, but this is different because Angelina doesn’t have cancer…yet. She was in a position to prevent it and she chose to do so. And by writing about it in such a personal way (I love that she shared her kids’ heartbreaking concern and the fact that they talk about “Mommy’s mommy” and that Brad Pitt was by her side for all the surgeries), she showed other women that they can choose it, too. As mothers, we owe it to our children to do whatever we can to be here for them as long as possible. Taking care of ourselves is the best gift we can give our families. You know how I feel about the importance of maintaining mom mental health (date nights, kid-free time with friends, wine) and the same goes for our physical wellbeing. We need to go to the doctor, to get regular check ups, to follow up on any weird hunches, to get rest, eat well, exercise and, if we can, take whatever measures possible to cut our cancer risks. Because I can tell you, being a mom and having cancer is not a good combination. (Read all about that in my momvivor piece.)

    Very recently one of my best friend’s mothers (who I was also very close with) lost her long battle with breast cancer and a day doesn’t go by where I don’t think of both of them and feel extreme sadness. They don’t have the breast cancer gene but I know if they did, my friend—a mother of three—would have already had the surgery. Not that it’s an easy decision or an easy procedure, but if you could do something about your risk, wouldn’t you? I’ve written many breast cancer stories over the years and I’ve had the privelege of getting to know many wonderful advocates and survivors. One of the hands-down coolest: Lindsay Avner, who started Bright Pink, an organization devoted to helping women assess breast and ovarian cancer risk and take preventative measures (Guiliana Rancic is a huge supporter). Lindsay has a ton of family history (her grandmother and great grandmother died young of breast cancer within a week of each other) and at 22, Lindsay tested positive for the same genetic mutation Angelina carries, increasing her lifetime risk of breast cancer to up to 87% and ovarian cancer up to 54%. Can you even imagine? At 23 she became the youngest person in the country at the time to opt for a preventive double mastectomy. And since then she and her organization have helped hundreds of thousands of women do the same. Many of them mothers. “What is so special about a mom like Angelina Jolie’s decision to take any sort of preventive action, whether that is surgery, surveillance, or a change in lifestyle factors, is not only what she is doing for herself but also the example she is setting for her children, for the future generation,” says Lindsay. “It’s a message of strength and courage. And we all know that actions speak louder than words.” Bright Pink is an awesome resource and you can use their Assess Your Risk tool for both breast and ovarian cancers. First gather your family’s health history on both your mom and your dad’s side (“don’t forget your dad’s side,” says Lindsay, “these cancers manifest more often in women, but the males can still carry the genetic mutation, and we get 50% of our genes from mom and 50% from dad”). This information will then inform your answers on the Assess Your Risk tool, which combines that health history with lifestyle factors and provides an analysis you can save, email, and print out to bring to your doctor’s office to start working with them to create the best risk reduction plan for you. Easy, right?

    Say what you will about Angelina Jolie (full disclosure: I have), but what she has done by simply sharing her experience is a HUGE gift to women everywhere. Sharing your cancer story—whether you’re an Oscar winner or just a regular writer/mom/person like me—helps people, period. It helps them cope, it helps them feel less alone, it helps educate and inform them. I hear from CML patients and survivors all the time about how comforting it was for them to find my book or my blog or my Glamour magazine column when they were diagnosed. I can’t tell you how that propels me and keeps me doing what I do (raising funds, speaking with patients, oversharing). And I’m just me. The fact that A-list, mega-star, international-goddess, mom-to-six Angelina Jolie wrote about this experience in such a big public way rocks. She will save lives. She will save mothers. She will save families. And so can you. Take a look at the piece and share with the women in your life.

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