It’s not the season to be Jolie

Problems stem from the projection of Angie as a female messiah who gave up her only breasts for the sake of womankind. This is a cross whose burden she must not carry
Ratna Raman Delhi 

Angelina Jolie has always directed headlines. Whether she was edging Jennifer Aniston out of the competition, putting Brad Pitt to pasture, bearing biological kids or mothering six children in fabulous mansions, aided by efficient staff on continents old and new, Celluloid Prime Time has always belonged to Angie. Bradlessly, she has show-stopped public events with her tattoos, her stunning couture, and her role as UN Ambassador. Small wonder then that the news about her reconstructed breast surgery turned heads firmly away from photo-features of the American first lady’s bare arms in the direction of Jolie’s newly
sculpted artifacts.

The deaths of her grandmother and mother due to cancer made Jolie opt for a gene test that revealed she had an 85 per cent chance of contracting breast cancer. This brought on her pre-emptive mastectomy involving the surgical excision of breast tissues in their entirety. A pre-menopausal woman who has completed her family is the ideal mastectomizable subject. Supportive Brad has made a clean breast of how he considers Jolie’s act “heroic” in well-planned newspaper and magazine interviews, although facing this low-risk surgical intervention on an operating table is more about sedation and less about valour.

The BRAC gene is the oracle of 21st century medical practice. Jolie sacrificed her breasts at the altar of the gods of modern genomics. Such propitiation is rewarded with medical grace even if malignancy is at this point only a gleam in the DNA.  Breasts, once removed, make rebooti-fying de rigeur, especially for celluloid divas. This is after all a world where footballers’ waxed legs are insured for millions and models substantiate asset holdings with silicone.

The breast may lose the functional value ascribed to it by nature, but it continues to retain residual cultural value as aesthetic and erotic prop. The breast, despite the presence of other fetishized female body parts such as hair, lips, thighs, derrieres, smooth limbs and waxed underarms, remains immortalized as the cynosure of every ogling eye. So, post-recovery, Angelina Jolie’s observation that she felt like a complete woman is appropriate in the context of a virtual reality where much feted  female body parts are  now renewable, remodel-able resources steadily supplied by state-of-art cuts, nips, tucks, grafts and botox, in a marriage of cosmetics with cutting edge medical science.

Problems stem from the projection of Angie as a female messiah who gave up her only breasts for the sake of womankind. This is a cross whose burden she must not carry.

BRAC1 and 2 tests have been around for well over 20 years and women who could afford the tests and reconstruction underwent similar procedure, however ‘unjolly’. Given the colossal expenditure, it is unlikely that a trillion copycat mastectomies will follow. Most ordinary women will remain a little conservative, since they are not only required to part with their pound of flesh but also pay huge sums in order to make this painful parting possible.

Genome tests, expensive enough in the first place, are slated to skyrocket. Angie’s gene testers, Myriad Genetics, are now applying for a patent on the BRAC genes. MyGe stocks are already going through the roof in anticipation. 

Women, whose bodies contain BRAC genes, will be paying for exorbitantly priced tests because Myriad Genetics will own the monopoly on testing and evaluating their genes. Although the financial and psychological costs are high for women, ‘Obama(don’t)care’ remains unmotivated by memories of  the milk of female sustenance and refuses to change ground rules for cancer screening. Mandatory mammograms will now be supplemented by expensive gene tests and followed up by invasive surgeries.

 Angie’s gene testers, Myriad Genetics, are now applying for a patent on the BRAC genes. MyGe stocks are already going through the roof in anticipation

It is time to recall that all protocols for cancer treatment originate in the US. Hence, when Indian doctors and counsellors well versed in cancer protocol hail Angelina’s public confession and call it “pro-woman and pro-choice”, it is important to remember that they speak for the privileged few who think that the health of their bodies can be safeguarded through coughing up adequate wealth for cutting edge medical intervention.

Things are bad enough for women in the US. We need to agree over a number that will allow us to tabulate the geometric progression of suffering in poor and densely populated countries such as our own. All those battles we just won over manufacturing indigenous life-saving drugs with first world pharma giants have now paled into irrelevance. Move over, pills and injections.  Human genome patent owner is now king. The operation table is the new kingdom and women’s body parts worthy material for pre-mortem dissection.

The irony is, we all possess cancer genes. Our bodies create them. If the cancer is intent on making an appearance, excising one’s breasts or uterus is unlikely to deter cancer from knocking at yet another body part.

The relentless invasiveness of medical technology that annexes genes which rightfully belong to each one of us and continues to terrify us with fake options must be taken cognizance of. Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962) reminds us that deteriorating environments laced with chemicals and pesticides trigger off cancer receptors in the human body. Carson’s death due to breast cancer is a poignant reinforcement of her heroic struggle in a world where those who have contributed to its degradation have consistently refused to find solutions for the less privileged nations and their people who bear the brunt of it all.

Disturbingly, cancer protocol that comes to us also borders on indoctrination and extremely aggressive methods of treatment. I enquired of a young oncologist at one multi-speciality hospital about holistic or alternative methods of treatment that might exist outside of allopathic/surgical systems. He agreed that they might exist but he was unaware of them and didn’t really have the time to pursue such knowledge. He had visited one place and stayed on for two days, on a quest, but as they had no records and no data backing their alternative methodology, he left, unimpressed.  Two days, I think to myself, is very limited time for analysis and evaluation, even for men who believe in the laboratory.

Jolie’s observation that she felt like a complete woman is appropriate in a context where much feted female body parts are renewable, remodell-able, supplied by state-of-art cuts, nips, tucks, grafts, botox, in a marriage of cosmetics with cutting edge medical science

We have put in place a system where the most rigorous medical training cannot be supplemented by cutting edge research or innovation. This is double-edged. The costs of genome study tests are prohibitive and while providing statistics for the very few, do little in terms of actual amelioration. So, for some of the  double-breasted with money spending power, multi speciality hospitals offer choices  between lumpectomy, mastectomy and reconstruction, in a manner that is reminiscent of selections from a food platter or at a shopping arcade.

This is supposedly pro-choice and pro-woman.

For women outside the lakshman rekhas of wealth and access, the abyss yawns. Perhaps, we need to stop ravaging our air, water and soil first.  

Indeed, shouldn’t we be exploring with great earnestness, cost-effective alternatives within our own shores, and rescuing lifestyles from SAD (Standard American Diets)?

Meanwhile, yet another gene patent battle got added on at the Western Front.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2013