IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Jolie's mature decision

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 19, 2013

I've never been a fan of actress Angelina Jolie.

First of all, she broke up Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, whom I thought were quite the perfect Hollywood couple.

Maybe as a result of thinking that, I've always concluded that in every photo she looks either incredibly smug or horribly mean.

I also find that with her big boobs and brightly painted lips she oozes a very calculated sort of sex appeal which many men may be drawn to, but I find slightly vulgar and offensive.

Yet I was very much inspired this past week by the 37-year-old American. I might even be willing, now, to watch Mr And Mrs Smith.

On Tuesday, Jolie wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times disclosing that she had undergone a double mastectomy, meaning that she had lopped off both of her breasts.

She didn't have breast cancer but her mother died of ovarian cancer at the relatively young age of 56.

Fearing that she might also be genetically predisposed to suffering the same fate, Jolie underwent a test for an inherited gene mutation called BCRA1 which her mother had.

The tests revealed that she indeed had the BCRA1 defect. Her doctors told her she had an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer.

"Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimise the risk as much I could," she wrote in the piece entitled My Medical Choice.

When the news first broke, I saw it as just another eye-catching Hollywood headline.

But later I went back to read more about Jolie's decision in her own words, and I keep thinking about it the whole week.

It wasn't so much the logic or the wisdom of the move. In fact, some commentators are now saying that she might have been wrongly advised by her doctors, and over-reacted.

Neither was it only about her bravery, which I salute.

Jolie is one of the industry's highest- paid sex symbols, and a decision like that which could affect her career must not have been taken lightly.

More than that, many men (and women) consider her to the physical embodiment of perfection in a woman.

So while breast implants have helped her retain her femininity, the procedure must have left a devastating psychological impact.

As a man, I can never properly understand.

But in the end, what impressed me the most about Jolie's decision was its maturity.

It seemed, ultimately, quite a selfless decision. The procedure would likely extend her life and her kids would not lose their mother early to cancer.

"Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of," she wrote at the end of her op-ed piece.

It's a maturity that I don't yet possess when it comes to my health. I know that if I were in her shoes, I would certainly not have done it.

In fact, I haven't found the courage to even go for the yearly medical check-ups that my company provides for free.

The last time I went must have been at least five years ago. At the time, the results showed that I was still in fairly good health, but my blood pressure was a little high and my cholesterol levels were borderline excessive.

I haven't dared to do another medical screening since, even though I am sure that my health has deteriorated. I'm now 40 - an age when chronic health problems will inevitably start to show up sooner or later.

I'm also getting far less exercise now, having quit active dragon boating a few years ago and still being too lazy to run or swim most weeks.

Meanwhile, my terrible eating habits seem to have worsened over the years. I can't live a day without eating some sort of deep-fried food, sometimes at every meal, and I still don't regularly eat fruit and vegetables.

When friends and colleagues ask me why I refuse to go for the annual health check-ups, I deflect the issue and turn it into a complaint about the company.

But the truth is the company orders more tests as its employees age. My colleagues tell me that a whole barrage of tests to be conducted in a robe are awaiting me, if only I would show up.

I tell myself that I still look okay, that I still do weights at the gym. I don't fall sick that often and there are no obvious outward signs of health problems.

Yet I know deep down inside that the clock is ticking on some sort of time bomb that is sooner or later going to explode on me.

For me, Jolie's double mastectomy has driven home the realisation that I haven't grown up at all in this respect.

I'm still a child who's unwilling to face up to the health risks that I have created for myself and the changes I will probably have to make to lessen them.

I would hate to have to give up pork belly, fried chicken and all the unhealthy stuff that I eat now without a second thought.

And God forbid that I would ever need to intentionally lose weight, having tried to build a big and bulky physique all my life.

Like some other people, I would also hate for the rest of my life to be weighed down by the depressing knowledge that I am sick or have a serious medical condition.

I know all of this is ultimately untenable, but I somehow recklessly speed on, hoping that there is a decent stretch of road to travel before what will surely be a sudden and inevitable crash.

If I do eventually live to a ripe old age, I might still find reason to dislike the actress Angelina Jolie.

Maybe I will write her a letter telling her she inspired me all those years back to finally go back to the doctors, who then picked up a medical problem in the nick of time.

That she was the reason why I had to give up my life that I enjoyed and turn into a lean, mean yoga-loving vegan.

I wonder, though, what the tone of my letter would be: grateful or bitter?

ignatius@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 19, 2013

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