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She is probably the most famous woman in the world, and has been scrutinized for everything from her choice to adopt four of her children to her tattoos. But when it came to one of Angelina Jolie's biggest personal decisions, she managed to keep it completely out of the public eye until revealing it today, in a shattering and beautifully written op-ed piece for The New York Times.
Over the course of three months this year, Jolie had a double mastectomy, removing both of her breasts in order to reduce her risk of breast cancer. After her mother's death from the disease Jolie had genetic testing that told her she had an 87% risk of contracting breast cancer, and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer. Her breast cancer risk has now been reduced to under 5%; as she writes, "I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer." Noting that breast cancer kills 458,000 people each year, and most of them in the developing world, Jolie explained her choice to take her story public:
I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.
Having directed a film about war crimes during the Serbia-Bosnia conflict and devoted much of her life to supporting charitable causes across the globe, Jolie is no stranger to sticking up publicly for a cause she believes in. But to reveal this much personal information about herself, and to explain the brutal and scary details of what a double mastectomy entails, is a new level of courage, particularly for an actress who's strived to keep her personal life as private as possible. She's far from the first woman to undergo the treatment in an effort to prevent breast cancer-- but she's certainly the most visible. Writing this article may not have required as much courage as undergoing the surgery itself, but if she's right, it could have an enormous impact on any other women facing the same choice.