Lessons from Angelina Jolie and Fernie Mae

Women leading women

Recent news about Angelina Jolie has me thinking of my mother. At first glance, a rich and famous celebrity and a working-class waitress from rural Kentucky would seem to have little in common. However, both have much to teach us about being informed and taking control when challenging health decisions need to be made.

My mother, Fern Dreffs, used to tell my three sisters and me, “You can’t control a lot of what happens, but you can control how you choose to react to what happens.”

This is one lesson we can take from the tough decision Jolie made to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed as a precaution against developing cancer. Jolie, whose preventive double mastectomy was well-documented, has again chosen to share her very personal medical experience in a very public way.

In a New York Times opinion column, Jolie referred to a promise she made after her earlier surgery to follow up with information that could be useful to other women. She wrote, “There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally.”

 “Some people may question Jolie’s decision as being too drastic. Other might see it as being brave,” said Janel Willingham, APRN, a nurse practitioner with Norton Healthcare Prevention & Wellness. “I think it speaks to dismantling the secrecy that sometimes keeps us from knowing what our options are.”

A significant factor in Jolie’s decision was her family history. She has a BRCA1 gene mutation, which puts her estimated risk for breast cancer at 87 percent and estimated risk for ovarian cancer at 50 percent. She lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer.

“Knowing your family history is a biggie,” said Willingham, who works with Norton Cancer Institute’s genetic testing program. “It’s also important to see your primary care doctor regularly and build trust well before you find yourself slammed with making some kind of life-altering decision.”

“It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue,” Jolie wrote in her essay. “You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.”

As I read this, my mother’s voice (with its distinctive Eastern Kentucky twang) echoed in my head.

My mother was 56 when we learned she had lung cancer, the same age at which Angelina Jolie’s mother died. Our hopes were high for a good outcome after Mom’s initial surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Sadly, that was not to be. We soon found out the cancer had spread to her brain and things rapidly went downhill from there.

Fernie Mae — our fond nickname for her because she had no middle name — took control and made some hard choices. After many serious discussions with her doctors and other trusted advisers, she decided on no further treatment. She wrote a living will, called on her local hospice for help, lived every moment as joyfully as she could and died on her own terms at home fully supported by all of us who loved her.

Jolie described making her decision as polarizing and peaceful. She wrote, “The beautiful thing about such moments in life is that there is so much clarity. You know what you live for and what matters.”

My mom couldn’t have said it so eloquently, but I’m certain she felt exactly the same way.

What we can learn from these two very courageous women is clear: Know and understand your options. Communicate openly with those you love and trust. Make decisions that reflect your values. Have faith that the choices you make are ultimately the right ones for you.


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