Angelina Jolie and the Power of Knowledge

Did you ever experience that weird sensation where you learn something you never knew, then suddenly you start seeing it everywhere?

Quite recently, my something was the BRCA gene, and today’s news flurry over Angelina Jolie’s Op-Ed piece was the tipping point.

In case you live under or rock or in a house without screens or gave up media for Lent, I shall explain. Angelina Jolie wrote an essay titled ‘Diary of a Surgery’, published in the Opinion section of today’s New York Times, which detailed her choice to have her ovaries removed because of her family’s history of cancer, as well as testing positive for the BRCA1 gene.

This topic first came onto my radar a week ago. I had just begun a branding project for FORCE, a non-profit organizations who’s mission is to improve the lives of those affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. It’s not that I’d never heard of women’s cancers. Of course I have. But I’d never read about them at great length. Ever. Until now. Or thought about them for hours on end. Research and concepting are a big part of my creative process.

And, well, things don’t hit home until they do. Like with Mrs. Pitt.

Earlier this evening, I was discussing the positives of Angelina’s announcement with a work colleague, wondering how this will impact the young breast cancer community that FORCE is dedicated to helping. And wondering how we can help this along.

So I went trolling the net and found myself pages deep in the comments section of a Jezebel story on Angelina’s Times writing, where one person ranted that the celebrity was oversharing, motivated by attention and a desire to scream, “Look at me!” Others cut down the filmmaker and mother's contributions to this conversation, claiming that her money and privilege makes her story unrelatable and irrelevant to the masses.

This got me fuming. I’m all for sarcasm and snark when appropriate, but here we have a person of immeasurable influence sharing an experience that will educate so many others, and dissing on that should be off-limits. But sadly, big news stories like this often inspire a backlash, not to mention fear. Especially when people just skim the headlines, or the media paints the issue with broad strokes, failing to provide the facts people need to act, not just react.

Thankfully, the majority of the other 247+ comments on that post were positive. Many were written by survivors or previvors or other women affected by cancer, and plenty of people touted Angelina as the mouthpiece of an important crusade. They all agreed she was doing much to raise awareness on a serious issue. And awareness is the first step to quelling fear. But it needs to be followed up with education and action.

FORCE stands for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered. 
Its guiding principal is that knowledge is power. And that’s how Angelina ended her essay in the Times. Knowledge is power.

And here I am feeling this weird sensation that the topic of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer is suddenly bombarding my mind and ear space. There is a name for this. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Also known as the “frequency illusion.’ When a thing you just found out about suddenly seems to crop up everywhere.

I know all of this has to be related. Not a coincidence that I happen to be working on this FORCE project right now. My task, much like Jolie’s, is to get the word out. And I’m excited about the prospect of succeeding–helping others is so much more gratifying than writing a funny headline or a controversial TV commercial.

If I can get a few women to learn something new about their risk of cancer, help calm fear or even put the topic on someone's radar, well, knowledge is power. And that would be a pretty good start.

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  1. She's given a face to the BRCA genes (1&2) and what those letters mean to a woman. For that, I am very grateful.


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