Today in The New York Times there are two powerful stories featuring powerful women who've opened up about personal health issues that have been major, previously private, parts of their lives. In the Op-Ed section, of course, there's the essay from actress, director, and humanitarian activist Angelina Jolie, who shares the story of her preventative double mastectomy, which she decided to undergo after learning that she "had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer," due to a mutation in her BRCA1 gene.
Elsewhere in the Times, there's another confession: When New York City Council Speaker and leading mayoral candidate Christine Quinn was 16, her mother was dying of breast cancer, and Christine was her primary caretaker. During this time Quinn became bulimic, sneaking "tubs of ice cream and corn muffins up to her bedroom, eat them in a single sitting, and then make herself throw up. The purging brought a momentary sense of relief to what seemed an out-of-control life," writes Kate Taylor. The bingeing and purging went on for 10 years, and was accompanied by alcoholism, until Quinn entered a rehab center at 26. It is a brave, revelatory tale, though in the Times story, there is this note: "Ms. Quinn, 46, contacted The New York Times to tell her story, as her aides try to soften her often rough-edged political image and build a campaign that draws heavily on her personal appeal to women."
I would like to believe that Quinn's intent at revealing her personal history, which she says she's still embarrassed about, is, as she says, for the greater good, and not a political tactic to curry favor with female voters (or to repair any damage sustained following what some called a Times hit piece on her back in March.) "'I just want people to know you can get through stuff," she told Taylor. "I hope people can see that in what my life has been and where it is going."
Quinn's and Jolie's stories both reflect a changing of the times, in how we talk about disease, and in how we might more openly reach for help when needed, making the most informed choices we can for ourselves. This was not the case when Quinn's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was in second grade. No one spoke of her mother's illness to her until she was in eighth grade, "when a nun at her Catholic school in Glen Cove, N.Y., told one of her classmates to be extra nice to her because her mother had cancer." Quinn's parents had, in fact, said the scar on her mother's chest was from "a bad tooth infection that had spread." At that point her mother was becoming more ill, and Quinn became bulimic and also started drinking. She eventually got help, and now, at 46, is releasing a memoir, With Patience and Fortitude, in which she talks about both her mother's death and her bulimia. Whether this disclosure is a mayoral ploy or not — she says, "It feels like an oddly nonpolitical thing" — I think her openness is admirable. And Jolie's disclosure on the pages of The New York Times, as opposed to the typical celebrity tabloid fare, is equally so, as her humanitarian role shifts in this instance from international to quite personal.
The conversations about these pieces have begun, and that's a good thing. People are pointing out that Jolie's choice isn't the only one that a woman might make. Certainly, this is a woman with access to a level of medical care that much of the world is not privy to, and beyond that, her choice might not be the best choice for someone else, given all the current options in the world. She acknowledges, "The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women." There is no one-size fits-all response to disease, but there is a response to the shame and secrecy and fear that have long prevented frank discussions about so-called "women's" illnesses like breast cancer and bulimia. Talking about these things out in the open, on the pages of The New York Times, in public, is a powerful step to making women and men who face disease feel just a bit more empowered. As Jolie writes, "Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of." The more celebrities, actresses, politicians, and, just, people who reveal not only beauty but also what we so easily discard as weakness, and share how they've coped and struggled and, fingers crossed, conquered, is a step toward greater awareness and strength for everyone.
Cancer is bad enough. Eating disorders and alcoholism are bad enough. For their public conversations about what they've faced, and for the future conversations they will inspire, Jolie and Quinn deserve our kudos, and much respect.
Inset photo by Evan Agostini/The Associated Press