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For Angelina Jolie, Mutilation Amounts to Prevention


The world exploded with praise and awe when actress Angelina Jolie announced – via op-ed in The New York Times – that she had undergone double-mastectomy as a preventative measure after discovering that she possessed the mutant BRCA1 gene. A mutation to either the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 (both named for BReast CAncer) genes seems to confer an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer in its carriers.

As the scourge of cancer has permeated the American landscape – one in two men and one in three women will develop cancer in their lifetimes – diagnosis and treatment have become the sole allowable precautionary procedures. Every day we learn more about the myriad of known and probable human carcinogens saturating our built environment. In addition, scientists are continually revealing the long-term, intergenerational, and epigenetic health effects of exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals. Yet, on our insidiously poisoned planet, our insistence to continue with business as usual has led us to a form of collective insanity. We now choose bodily mutilation as a means of dealing with the diseases of our global industrial culture, rather than confronting the root causes.

In a 2003 study published in the esteemed academic journal Science, researchers found that among women carrying the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, cancer “risks seemed to be increasing over time.”[i] In other words, those born before 1950 only had a 24% risk of developing breast cancer by age 50, while those born after 1950 had a 67% risk. These statistics indicate that the cancers are not at all caused by these genes; merely, these genes enable certain environmental factors to affect those who carry these genes. Moreover, these environmental triggers of cancer have become more prevalent in recent years. And though the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene carriers do individually possess a higher risk of cancer, they comprise less than 5% of breast cancer cases.[ii]

Consequently, inherited genetic traits cannot be deemed causal factors in the genesis of the vast majority of cancers. Furthermore, inherited predispositions or susceptibilities only exist in the sense that there must be an environmental exposure to elicit the genetic response. Remove the exposure and you remove the predisposition.

Clearly, the environment is the key piece to solving the cancer puzzle. Yet rather than disrupting the corporate capitalist consumer culture that incessantly disseminates its toxic pollutants throughout our land, water, and air, we choose the path of least resistance. Instead of removing carcinogens and other substances such as endocrine disrupting chemicals from our environment, we irradiate, poison, or mutilate our bodies to permit global industrial capitalism to continue unabated. And though at times these primitive procedures allow us a productive life after they take arduous and torturous tolls, other times they may just prolong or even hasten the inevitable.

As a victim of cancer myself, I comprehend the current need for treatment. But as one of the innumerable many who have lost loved ones to the illness, it is the lack of effort to truly reject this preventable harm to which I demur. Angelina Jolie’s choice of “prevention” – one that remains unaffordable and unavailable to most women who suffer at the hands of our corporate health insurance and medical system – is a rather extreme measure which has nonetheless become all too acceptable.

While I do not begrudge her personal decision, I begrudge a society that chooses to tolerate its women undergoing amputation and excision as routine procedures. As anthropogenic alterations to our world render it more and more inhospitable to life, will we continue to abide increasingly insane actions to maintain our existence, or will we ever relinquish our short-term superficial conveniences for long-term genuine life?

Kristine Mattis is a teacher, writer, scientist, activist, and agitator. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a reporter for the congressional record in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a schoolteacher. She and her partner blog when they can at

[i] King, M.C., Marks, J.H., and Mandell, J.B. (2003). Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risks Due to Inherited Mutations in

BRCA1 and BRCA2. Science. 302(5645).

[ii] Pasche, B. (2010). Cancer Genetics. New York: Springer.

Kristine Mattis received her PhD in Environmental Studies. As an interdisciplinary environmental scholar with a background in biology, earth system science, and policy, her research focuses on environmental risk information and science communication. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a science reporter for the U.S. Congressional Record, and as a science and health teacher. She can be reached at:

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