Angelina Jolie recently went public with her dramatic story of a preventive mastectomy and her aunt Debbie Martin died of breast cancer a couple of weeks later. (Jolie's mother Marcheline Bertrand also died of ovarian cancer in 2007 at age 56.) The BRCA1 gene runs in the family and Jolie, who is 37, reported in her announcement, “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman. Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy.”
You can't help but admire Angelina Jolie's courage. But also the achievements of the doctors, researchers and scientists who have come so far in treating a dreaded disease that is no longer a death sentence. How many roads have we walked down even in my lifetime? The genome project that made her diagnosis, prognosis possible. I had the nodes removed under my left arm 12 years ago—I'm blessed, they were clear—that surgery isn't done anymore. But then I thought about Marvella Bayh, the late wife of legendary Senator Birch Bayh and the mother of former Indiana governor and senator Evan Bayh. Marvella Bayh breast cancer was first diagnosed in 1971 and she had a mastectomy on one side.
About that time, the American Cancer Society realized the value of a celebrity spokesperson and asked Marvella Bayh if she would come and work for them. Something no woman had ever done before. She loved her work for the ACS. “And now she was the one and I felt so happy for her,” Birch Bayh explained. After 7 ½ years the cancer returned, this time her doctor told Marvella Bayh that she had a year to live.
“While it was not to be that she would survive this, she [Marvella] readily acknowledged the importance of family and friendships in getting through it,” as Mary Lynn Kotz, Marvella Bayh’s coauthor on her autobiography "Marvella: A Personal Journey" would explain to me many years later. She was not only fearless in being the first woman to take her illness public, she never quit thanking the people she was helping, for their support during that time when she spoke out.
Marvella Bayh showed the path to many others including Angelina Jolie why speaking out and raising funds to fight cancer is everyone's responsibility. Marvella Bayh's commitment lives on through her family and the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been raised, especially for the Indiana University Medical School's scholarship fund for research. Link to the entire story on Marvella Bayh here.
The cure is elusive as ever, but as we all know, it's still out there.
Associate Publisher and Editor