Angelina Jolie Pitt’s surgery options available to Canadian women

Shine On
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From Gwyneth Paltrow yapping about juice cleanses to Jenny McCarthy’s take on vaccines most celebrity health advice usually elicits loud boos from experts.

But many here in Canada are applauding Angelina Jolie Pitt’s latest op-ed for The New York Times about her decision to have preventative surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.

“Generally I’m quite critical about celebrities giving health advice,” Steven Hoffman told Yahoo Canada in a phone interview.

But in this case, he liked what he read. Hoffman is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in global health law, global governance and institutional design, and has been studying celebrity health advice for years.

In particular, he liked that Jolie Pitt emphasized that this was her personal journey and that she urged readers to get proactive about their health, to weigh the pros and cons, to seek out professional advice and then to make the best decision for themselves and their family.

She closed her piece by saying, in part: “It is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue.”

Of course, the wealthy superstar has more access and money to deal with her health “head-on.” But, unlike in other parts of the world, here in Canada most of the options she wrote about are available to regular women as part of our public health-care system, notes Hoffman. However, the article did specifically mention seeking advice from naturopaths, which Hoffman said are not covered by the public health-care system in Canada.

Dr. Gillian Mitchell, medical director of the hereditary cancer program at the BC Cancer Agency, also applauded Jolie Pitt’s piece. She said the star has helped not only raised awareness of cancer, but has helped normalize preventative measures some women choose to take.

“Women no longer have to justify their choices to others,” said Dr. Mitchell in a phone interview.

Elisabeth Baugh, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Canada, was over the moon about the revealing op-ed:

“It’s an extremely personal and private thing,” Baugh said. “A woman so famous and glamorous doesn’t need to reveal this publicly. She did so for the greater good.”

The head of the charitable organization based in Toronto said the op-ed lets women know they have options. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer for women, but it is the most fatal women's cancer. There are about 17,000 women living with ovarian cancer in this country, and an estimated 2,600 women were set to be newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013, according to Ovarian Cancer Canada. Besides family history other risk factors include: being a woman aged 50-79 and ethnicity, specifically being a Jewish woman of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) background, as well as French Canadians of certain ancestry.

Baugh said her organization has long promoted surgery, like the one Jolie Pitt had, as a preventative measure. The surgery is usually covered under provincial health plans in Canada, she said. The organization also supports genetic testing, such as the genetic testing for BRCA1 Jolie Pitt mentioned in her latest piece, as well as in her 2013 op-ed on her choice to have a preventative double mastectomy. Genetic testing is generally covered under provincial health plans, though only when women meet certain criteria, which varies from province to province. After the 2013 op-ed, Canadian researchers found there was an uptick of women considering genetic testing, dubbed the "Angelina effect."

While the experts are glad someone of Jolie Pitt’s stature is speaking publicly about such a private decision they do not want the current op-ed to cause undue mass panic. Dr. Marcus Bernardini, surgical oncologist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University Health Network, in Toronto agrees.

“The first step is to remember that the vast majority of the population are not at risk and will never get ovarian cancer,” Dr. Bernardini said in an e-mail.

All four medical experts say Canadian women should speak with their family doctor about their health history and then make decisions about testing and surgery based on the specific facts of their case, not on what a celebrity, even one as widely respected as Jolie Pitt, decided to do.

We want to know: Given what Canadian experts say about the availability of this treatment in Canada, do you think it is possible for anyone to tackle their health issues "head-on," like Jolie said in her op-ed? Do you think celebrities have the upper hand when it comes to dealing with health issues? Let us know in the comments.