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The Voices Behind Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie’s revelation of her preventive mastectomy was a courageous act. But its real importance is its context: a wave of women and men worldwide are insisting on narrating their own meanings for events involving their bodies – events that, like breast cancer, were once shrouded in shame, silence, fear, or blame.

NEW YORK – On May 26, Angelina Jolie’s aunt, Debbie Martin, died of breast cancer at 61. Jolie’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died at 56 from a related illness, ovarian cancer. And, two weeks before Martin died, Jolie revealed that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for a BRCA gene mutation – which is correlated with a woman’s being five times more susceptible to breast cancer and 28 times more susceptible to ovarian cancer.

The test for the BRCA mutation is expensive – roughly $3,500. In the United States, health insurers cover the cost only if a first-degree relative – for example, a woman’s mother – has had a history of breast or ovarian cancer; other women must pay out of pocket. Given the benefits of preventive care, the test has become highly controversial, because its manufacturer, Myriad Genetics, holds a genetic patent that gives it a monopoly – and huge profits – on all testing.

Jolie’s announcement has thrown a spotlight on that issue. More broadly, she is that rare entertainer/sex symbol who, like Madonna and a few other women, largely dictates her own narrative about the “meaning” of her celebrity. For Jolie, that means often using her iconic status to advance a positive agenda, whether the issue is Syrian refugees in Jordan or breast-cancer awareness.

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