Timely warning from Angelina Jolie

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 2:48am

A story about a double mastectomy is not an easy sell. But actress Angelina Jolie's first-person account of her decision to have one reached a huge print and electronic audience. Thanks to her star appeal it would have more than matched big box-office movies in the first day or two after release. The story had elements of love, fear, courage, sacrifice and the wonders of genetic science. All it needed was a big name.

Jolie is not the first high-profile woman to go public on such a deeply personal issue. Pop diva Kylie Minogue is one cancer survivor who did. What sets Jolie apart is that she did not have cancer. But she has a gene mutation that her doctors say made it very likely she would have got breast cancer and 50 per cent likely she will get ovarian cancer. The average risk of breast cancer with this gene mutation is 65 per cent.

Having lost her own mother, who died at 56 of breast cancer, Jolie chose surgery partly for her children's sake. Her decision to write about it for the New York Times, to help other women, has been hailed by women's activists and medical authorities.

Gene testing is a lifesaving development for women most at risk. Affordable access to it should be a global priority in the fight against a disease that kills some 458,000 worldwide a year. But there is much more Hong Kong could do already to combat the local incidence of breast cancer - 55 in every 100,000 women against a world average of 39.

The Breast Cancer Foundation recently called for the city's government to join the mainland, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea among the 34 countries that have population-wide breast-cancer screening programmes. Effective education is also a proven safeguard - in self-examination, the need for regular check-ups and about evidence that breast feeding lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as making babies less prone to a range of ailments.

Jolie's story appeared on International Day of the Family. Given her thoughts for her children, it resonated with the sentiment of this year's theme - intergenerational solidarity.