Criticism of Angelina Jolie telling her story is misplaced

Creative Commons Attribution: Gage Skidmore
Creative Commons Attribution: Gage Skidmore

One day after Angelina Jolie published a touching op-ed in the New York Times about her decision last week to have surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes, some sensationally disturbing articles are appearing in various newspapers, followed as always by even more disturbing comments.

Blowback to the Angelina Effect as Experts Warn Jolie’s Decision Leads to Greater Anxiety and Unnecessary Tests was the headline that greeted many who turned on their computers this morning and skimmed the headlines. This article is, as many articles in the National Post are, merely an editorialization of another article in another newspaper, in this case one in the Globe and Mail called Jolie Can Start a Health Conversation but She Mustn’t be the Last Word, written by the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

The gist of both of these articles is that Jolie, while her heart is in the right place, may cause unnecessary strain on the healthcare system and misplaced anxiety in many people who cannot comprehend that their situation may not be exactly the same as hers. To me, that is contrarianism for the sake of itself.

I recall back in University watching a thrilling episode of Melrose Place, the one where Amanda Woodward (played by Heather Locklear) discovered a swollen gland in her neck/throat and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. As I watched this episode, my hands went up to my own throat to check glands I had never thought to check before, and sure enough, one side seemed larger than the other. I spent a night of utter anxiety, sure I also had that disease, and the next morning skipped class to go to the walk-in clinic. As I described my fears to my doctor, he nodded knowingly and asked, “Did you watch Melrose Place last night?” I said that I had, and he told me I was not the first person he’d seen that day for the exact same reason, and probably would not be the last.

Following the logic put forth in some of the commentary I have read regarding Jolie’s decision to go public with her own story, that episode of Melrose Place should not have aired so many years ago. No book or movie or documentary about disease prevention or approach to healthcare should ever be publicized because some people out there may not understand every detail to the fullest extent, and may cause an increase of demand for screening and tests. Information should be seen as dangerous, we should not have access to knowledge that can allow us to make informed decisions about our own health, and we should give up all of our personal power to a healthcare professional (preferably of the allopathic persuasion) who will make decisions about our bodies for us.  The criticisms of Jolie’s article and story amount to saying that health and mortality are topics we should only ever wax poetic about.

Doctors are neither servants to their patients nor gods in control of other people’s lives; they are authority figures with specialized knowledge that most of us do not possess and their job is to use that knowledge to help others choose their paths to health. Who cares if there is a spike in people asking questions related to their possible susceptibility to a disease as deadly as ovarian cancer, which often has no symptoms until far too late? Who cares if there is a large portion of the population that is only motivated to seek information about their own health when someone they admire and trust, like a celebrity, tells them a similar story about themselves?

This is not a burden on the healthcare system; it’s an opportunity for education. After that Melrose Place episode, I learned more about the symptoms of Hodgkin’s Disease. I learned that the type of gland that I was feeling was not one of the ones that typically would indicate the disease. I learned that due to my family history, my environment, my lifestyle, my age and my general health, it would be extremely rare if I had harboured this or any other silent but deadly disease at that time. I discovered I could be a bit of a hypochondriac, and that that was the source of my anxiety, not some person telling me about their own health struggles.

Excessive worry about one’s own health is symptomatic of an entirely different issue, rooted in the fearful realization of one’s own mortality, and the danger and uncertainty of this world and our life in it. It can be symptomatic of stress or situations one is not properly dealing with and is instead projecting onto the state of their physical health. A severe hypochondriac suffers from a serious type of obsessive disorder that can take on a mind of its own, and completely debilitate the person experiencing it. That is what can be a strain on the healthcare system, but only insofar as a doctor not recognizing that the patient is being driven by an untreated health-related anxiety disorder and not a spike in awareness of a certain disease caused by a celebrity’s personal story.

If reading Angelina Jolie’s story awakened such a worry, such a fear, in you, then by all means first go and put your mind at ease by speaking to a healthcare professional. They can and should tell you if your anxiety has any foundation.

If a health-related worry triggered by someone else’s condition cannot be assuaged by your doctor’s prognosis, it would do you well to stop and calmly evaluate why that may be occurring. Your experience in this life will be better if you can develop the tools to take control of the fear of sickness and death. You will be stronger for acknowledging that an obsession over one’s health, or perception of health-related imperfection, may create or aggravate actual physical symptoms. Not learning to face this can result in the degradation of your quality of life, the missing of opportunity, and the possibility that you are setting yourself up to be a different sort of victim – the sort that wastes time, energy and money on products, treatments and lifestyles that exist mainly for someone else’s profit and not for your well-being.

Rather than listen to suggestions that Jolie’s admissions may cause unnecessary anxiety, testing and misdiagnosis, listen instead to what she herself says, “It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.”

Knowledge is power, whether or not what you learn and what you know has to do with an actual physical disease or disability, seeking and achieving mental health, or both. Knowledge leads to experience, which leads to wisdom, which leads to acceptance, which leads to peace, and will result in a positive diagnosis of a life well lived.

-R.K. Finch