As far as celebrities-and-cancer goes, Michael Douglas is brave. Angelina Jolie, not so much.
Bravery requires taking a risk. Jolie’s decision to remove her breasts and ovaries was perhaps the most important decision she has ever made. Melissa Etherage, a cancer survivor, has said she doesn’t think that Angelina’s choice was brave, but “fearful”. She’s right about Jolie’s medical choice, but wrong about the bravery aspect. Jolie took a big risk by going public about her choice; a huge risk, for someone who makes her living as an actor. Will it affect her box-office appeal? That remains to be seen.
Michael Douglas had no health imperative at stake when he went public. His statements about the connection between the HPV virus and head-and-neck cancer align with what cancer specialists have known for a long time. His risk was similar to Jolie’s, but public perception may be less lenient to cancer’s connection to cunnilingus. Open discussion about breasts is within the sphere of public discourse; talk about cunnilingus makes a lot of people uncomfortable.
All of this relates to what bravery is all about. When I was being treated for cancer, I often heard comments about my bravery in the face of so deadly a disease. It always made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t being brave, I was taking actions that I believed would save my life. And they did. It was a no-brainer.
Right now, my best friend in the world is sitting at home with her husband, who is in hospice, waiting to die of lymphoma. They are both waiting it out. There is no hope for any other outcome, and they both know it. But is providing love and care an act of bravery? I don’t think so.
Bravery, in connection with disease, is complicated. Steve Jobs took a risk by foregoing chemotherapy and choosing alternative therapy for his aggressive form of cancer. That might have been an act of bravery…or was it an act of folly? Would conventional treatment at the beginning of his treatment have made a difference in the outcome? In terms of bravery, I don’t think the outcome matters.
Many years ago, when I saw all of the women on my mother’s side of the family die, one by one, of some form of reproductive cancer, I knew that cancer was a health issue I wasn’t likely to escape. My mother died of breast cancer, so did her sister. As far as I was concerned, the only way I could avoid the same outcome was to have my breasts removed. It was an easy decision for me, because I had always had a contentious relationship with my breasts. They were not an erogenous zone, they had no feeling at all. As far as I was concerned, they were sitting on my chest, waiting to kill me. I wanted them off, but my best friend, the one now awaiting her husband’s death, talked me out of it. She thought the whole idea was crazy.
She was wrong. Times have changed. I still wish I had made that decision. It would have kept me from the inevitable diagnosis of breast cancer. But as decisions go, it wouldn’t qualify as brave.
Elaine Jesmer, an author and marketing consultant who lives in Los Angeles, is the author of I’m Hot! . . . and I’m Bald!: Chemotherapy for Winners, available at Amazon and Kindle. Her website elainejesmer.com connects patients to chemo-related resources, and includes a monthly newsletter, “Chemotalk”.