Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge
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I’m not sure why singer Melissa Etheridge felt inclined to attack Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy after the actress found out she carried a high-risk gene mutation. “I wouldn’t call it the brave choice,” Etheridge said in an interview with Washington Blade magazine posted on Tuesday. “I actually think it’s the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer.”

In a followup statement, Etheridge said she wasn’t voicing an opinion on what Jolie “should have done. All are free to choose. I only objected to the term ‘brave’ describing it.”

Brad Pitt, Jolie’s partner, said several week ago that Jolie’s choice was “absolutely heroic.”

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Etheridge, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, said, she also has a BRCA gene mutation but chose not to have a double mastectomy. Why she thinks her decision is any braver than Jolie’s remains a mystery.

I would argue that simply getting screened for a BRCA gene mutation requires a certain amount of courage; a positive result leaves a woman facing a Solomonic decision: surgery to remove her breasts and ovaries or frequent screenings and worry for the rest of her life.

It also means informing daughters, sisters, and cousins about the finding in case they, too, want to get tested.

Even when the mutation isn’t found, there’s sometimes a price to be paid. One of my friends felt guilty after learning that she wasn’t a BRCA carrier since her sister’s mutation had already led to an aggressive breast tumor. Why did she get a favorable roll of the dice when her sibling did not?

But that’s not what irks me about Etheridge’s comments. She’s, after all, entitled to her opinions—and perhaps she feels more courageous keeping her breasts.

What’s not excusable is the misinformation Etheridge is spreading. In her interview with the Blade, she said stress turns the gene mutation on.

“Plenty of people have the gene mutation and everything but it never comes to cancer so I would say to anybody faced with that, that choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do and to really consider the advancements we’ve made in things like nutrition and stress levels,” Etheridge said in her interview. “I’ve been cancer free for nine years now and looking back, I completely understand why I got cancer. There was so much acidity in everything.”

That sort of faulty reasoning puts the blame squarely on cancer victims for their disease when it’s become increasingly clear that researchers still don’t know much about the causes of breast cancer.

While inheriting certain gene mutations have been linked to a higher breast cancer risk, science hasn’t yet determined why some women with the gene mutations get cancer and others don’t. I’m taking a guess here that too much “acidity” isn’t likely driving gene expression.

Etheridge also makes it seem as if women have some sort of control over whether their cancer returns and kills them. That’s particularly painful to those fighting end-stage cancer.

Two days ago, a friend in my own community lost her fight. Those eulogizing her at her funeral spoke eloquently of how hard she fought to live trying every experimental treatment offered by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, while cocooning herself in a large loving network of family and friends.

She had little acidity in her life beyond her disease and faced her treatment decisions with just as much courage as Etheridge and Jolie. I think her husband would also call her heroic.