Angelina Jolie undergoes double mastectomy - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 14 May 2013

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has revealed that she has had a double mastectomy to reduce her chance of developing breast cancer.

Angelina Jolie undergoes double mastectomy

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 14 May 2013

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has revealed that she has had a double mastectomy to reduce her chance of developing breast cancer.

The Hollywood star, whose partner is fellow actor Brad Pitt, wrote an essay for The New York Times newspaper explaining that she underwent surgery because of a “faulty” gene. Jolie, aged 37, has a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which puts her at increased risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Mutations in the BRCA genes are rare, accounting for about 5 per cent of all breast cancer cases. In Jolie’s case, her mutated gene left her with an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer.

The World Health Organisation cites breast cancer as the most common cancer in women in both the developed and the developing worlds. The National Cancer Institute in the US and Cancer Research UK both put the risk of women developing breast cancer at some stage in their life at around 1 in 8. Although women with a direct relative with breast cancer (for example, a mother, sister or daughter) have almost double the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer themselves, more than 85 per cent of women who have a close relative with breast cancer will never develop the disease, according to Cancer Research UK.

Jolie has personal experience of cancer; her mother, actor and producer Marcheline Bertrand, died of ovarian cancer in 2007 at the age of 56. She explained that the decision to have a mastectomy was not an easy one, but said that she was happy that she could now reassure her own six children that the condition would not take her away from them.

“I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer,” she writes.

“It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can.”

Jolie started the mastectomy procedure in February and completed it in April. Tissue was removed from both her breasts and they were later reconstructed. Pitt was by her side for “every minute” of the procedures, she said, adding that partners are “a very important part of the transition”. Doctors estimate that her chance of developing breast cancer is now less than 5 per cent.

Jolie said she decided to go public with the news of her surgery in the hope that other women would get tested. In countries such as the UK, Brazil, Australia and others, genetic tests such as the one carried out on Jolie can be carried out for free. This is because these countries have universal health coverage, which means that the government provides healthcare for all its citizens. However, the US, where Jolie lives, does not have the same system and people can expect to pay up to $3,000 for the test. Jolie said the cost was “an obstacle” for many women in the US and elsewhere.

“It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live.”

Questions for discussion or further research:

  • How important do you think it is for people like Jolie to go public with their stories? Explain your reasons.
  • Other than the cost, can you think of any other reasons why some women might avoid getting tested?
  • How might Jolie’s experience of her own mother’s struggle with cancer have influenced her decision to have a mastectomy?
  • What could we do to raise more awareness in our community about the risks of breast cancer, and to support those who have been affected by it?

Resources for you

Cancer and the genome

  • Find out about cancer and DNA with a video from Teachers TV.

Breast cancer in the family

  • A video from the NowgenSchools Genomics Programme exploring the genetic and environmental factors affecting breast cancer.

Breast cancer screening

  • Take a look at the data and analysis around breast cancer screening with a lesson from NGfL Cymru.

Positive female role models

  • Find out about the lives and achievements of women in the public eye from Angelina Jolie to Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and Hillary Clinton.


  • This factual presentation is a useful resource for students aged 14-19.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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