Monthly Archives: July 2013

Self-Mutilation or Preventive Health Care?

Sometimes the clearest demonstrations of human nature are played out in seemingly throwaway, tabloid-type stories. Like it or not, this is where America often hides its gold. Recently, Angelina Jolie revealed that she’d undergone a double mastectomy because she possessed a gene that has been identified as a carrier of breast cancer and wanted to give herself the best chance possible to beat the odds.

We make choices every day about our health and well-being with little or no effect on public perception. However, if I’m a well-respected, high-profile celebrity who elects to go public about my choices it pushes the discussion into a larger forum. Jolie is currently portrayed in the media as a compassionate humanitarian and consummate mom. Essentially, she is beyond reproach in an entertainment culture that usually eats celebrities for breakfast.

This perception of Jolie is important because it lends tacit legitimacy to her decisions and actions. Can you imagine what the public response would’ve been if the subject had been Pamela Anderson or Nikki Minaj, for instance? So, if I’m a teenage girl who idolizes Jolie, I could easily get the message that it’s okay to hate my body and totally disregard what it has to tell me about myself. Once again, we’re unable to view disease as anything but the enemy and not as a part of us that’s attempting to make itself heard. We don’t heal by making ourselves less whole, we heal by becoming more whole.

Whatever intelligence is driving a hereditary health pattern will find a way to express itself, even if in our arrogance we attempt to avoid its expression by divesting ourselves of a body part that hasn’t even shown any evidence of disease. We’re simply not in control here, folks.

Thankfully, Melissa Etheridge had the stones to publicly question whether this was a decision that Jolie made out of fear rather than courage. Considering the present atmosphere in this country, this statement couldn’t have come from a man. There have been so many instances of male conservative politicians making asinine, ignorant statements about women lately that the backlash would’ve been too intense to examine whether he actually had anything legitimate to say. The rush to Jolie’s defense would’ve been immediate, as the issue would’ve been polarized into a male vs. female context, and the subtler implications of the story would’ve been lost.

Rather, it took a woman like Etheridge who has healed from her own breast cancer and is not shy about discussing how it taught her a lot about herself to offer an alternative perspective. What about the courage it takes to actually communicate and participate with one’s body? How about the courage required to trust a process that our culture and health care system judges as a betrayal by the body? Etheridge’s story of recovery is the kind of experience that actually informs us about our humanity rather than reinforces an illusion of immortality and invincibility.

If you know you may have a predisposition toward a particular disease, then you’re in a unique and empowered position to watch whether your mind will manifest the disease or not, because in the end it’s our beliefs that determine our health. We blithely talk about “living in the present,” but this is one instance that genuinely requires it. But it is regarded as a curse and not a gift. And, by the way, all of us have a predisposition toward a terminal condition, and it’s called death.

A person cannot simply come out and say, “I’m going to have my breasts surgically removed because I’m afraid to die.” No, it has to be framed as a noble choice that requires “courage.” This story is all about our collective fear of death, but we shape the narrative in any other way possible, because any real discussion of death is too taboo. We’re trained early on in life to both fear death and to feel ashamed of acknowledging that fear. This leaves us no recourse but to talk around death in some manner that makes a pretense of confronting our mortality, but in reality goes only so far as to skirt any uncomfortable feelings. We all instinctively know where those boundaries lie. It’s a careful tightrope act that we perform around death and it goes largely unnoticed.

How much evidence do we need that one of the prices of inhabiting a physical body is witnessing its dissolution? Does this thrill me? Of course not, because I’ve been taught to fear death just as much as the next person. But it is a simple fact of life that presents itself on a daily basis. And, if we could begin to acknowledge the inevitability and practical reality of death on a culture-wide basis, it would profoundly transform our idea of health and our health care system.

James Rolwing, DC