The Case of Angelina Jolie: Double Mastectomy and Breast Cancer Prevention

To say that Angelina Jolie has made a huge impact not just on Hollywood but the world at large would almost be an understatement. Boasting the image of a “wild child” in the earlier part of her career, this Academy Award-winning actress made a drastic shift some years later when she became extensively involved in numerous humanitarian efforts. This has earned her much recognition the world over, even placing her at the very top of certain lists detailing the most admired people in the world.

Universally considered to be among the most beautiful women in Hollywood, with a successful film career and many philanthropic endeavors, she has certainly managed to leave a prominent mark on modern society. As such, there are many things people immediately associate with the name Angelina Jolie – double mastectomy happens to also be among them.

The reason for this lies in Jolie’s op-ed published by the New York Times on May 14, 2013. In it, the actress made the somewhat shocking revelation that she had undergone this procedure in order to reduce her chances of developing breast cancer. The news instantly made headlines and grabbed the attention of the public, placing this medical issue under the spotlight.

Cancer and Mastectomy – A Quick Overview

Unfortunately, there really is no need to spend a great deal of time talking about cancer seeing as everyone is all too familiar with this horrible illness.

But in essence, it is a term that covers a number of diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth and the creation of malignant tumors. The cause is a combination of a person’s genetic makeup and the effects of three types of external carcinogenic agents:

  • Physical (different types of radiation)
  • Chemical (for example, asbestos or certain substances found in tobacco smoke)
  • Biological (such as various infections)

According to the World Health Organization, if you add up the figures for all the different types of cancer, the disease is the second most frequent cause of death on the global scale. It only sits behind heart disease on that grim list.

As far as breast cancer is concerned, the WHO further states that it is the most common type of cancer in the female population. It impacts more than two million women on an annual basis and is also responsible for the greatest portion of cancer-related fatalities that befall this population every year. Specifically, the organization estimates that breast cancer has claimed the lives of more than 600,000 women in 2018 alone.

Finally, the last element we’ll briefly explain is the term mastectomy. Simply put, it is medical jargon for a surgery to remove either one breast or both of them. During the procedure, the surgeon can excise only a portion of the tissue or remove the breast(s) completely.

As you would expect, it is one of the most common ways to treat breast cancer. Additionally, the patient may opt to follow it up with reconstructive surgery (as was the case with Jolie).

Angelina Jolie’s Mastectomy: The Details

A crucial part of the procedure Jolie had undergone is the fact that she did not have breast cancer. As mentioned, she did it in order to reduce the likelihood of getting it. This makes her surgery preventive in nature. Therefore, the full designation of her procedure would be “prophylactic bilateral mastectomy”.

As Jolie explained herself, the reason she decided to undergo such a drastic measure was because she belonged to the “high-risk” category when it came to the odds of developing breast cancer at some point in the future. This began with a family history of cancer.

Most notably, Jolie’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, suffered from both breast and ovarian cancer and succumbed to the latter in 2007. Also an actress, she was only 56 at the time of her death. This caused Jolie to undergo tests which helped her discover she had a mutation in the BRCA1 gene.

This gene helps suppress the growth of tumors and when it is “faulty”, like it was with Jolie, the risk of getting cancer increases several times over. As she wrote, the doctors estimated that her chances of developing breast cancer were as high as 87%.

These bleak odds had a very profound effect on Angelina Jolie – double mastectomy arose as the best way to combat them. As she put it, the primary motivation to go forward with such a life-changing procedure was the fear that her six children might have to go through an ordeal similar to what she had faced with her own mother.

Therefore, in early February of 2013, Jolie had the first of several surgical procedures which were a part of the mastectomy. In late April of the same year, the final reconstructive surgery took place, signaling a successful end to the whole process.

The Aftermath

When you look at the world we live in and how connected everything is, it seems incredibly difficult to hide anything. For celebrities, it can be almost impossible. With the countless news outlasts, gossip websites, and paparazzi hounding their every step, secrets tend to come out almost immediately. That is why it is all the more surprising that the first anyone’s heard of this was from Jolie herself.

Despite managing to keep the entire procedure private, she decided to reveal such an incredibly intimate detail in order to benefit other women. Her goal was to raise awareness of preventive measures and inspire others to be proactive. And it worked.

Following her announcement, which was met with nothing but praise from the public, the number of genetic tests aimed at discovering the risk of breast cancer saw a noticeable increase. The same beneficial effect applied to other cancer-preventing activities.

In the end, not only did Jolie drastically reduce the odds of getting breast cancer herself (from 87% to below 5%, according to her doctors), but she played a role in helping many other women get ahead of this disease.


By undergoing a double mastectomy, Angelina Jolie made a preemptive strike in her fight against breast cancer. And by sharing her experience with the world, she helped others do the same.

Now, a mastectomy isn’t the only option and there are other treatments available. But what matters the most is dealing with cancer before it does its damage. Those first few steps are crucial.