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I Have No Thoughts on Angelina Jolie and her Breast Cancer

I opened my inbox today and found a note from my favorite teacher. I was all at once excited. We have a pretty decent bond and have managed to keep in touch, even though I have not been under his tutelage in seventeen years. I tore into his message, which read this in part:

Howdy? Planning to do something with issues arising from Angelina Jolie’s story? Also, what’s it with grown men abducting and keeping young women in captivity for decades – surely you’ll have an interesting angle to provoke some real thinking and action among the outraged … as in loud proclamations of outrage are not enough. Both offer a bigger and more useful set of issues on which to expend your ever sharpening talent than indulging the soft porn desires of Adventures readers methinks…

He then invited me to get angry with him if I wanted for being “judgmental” and ended on a softer note by saying he missed Abena Gyekye (but only a bit). In times past, this sort of criticism might have cut into my soul like a blade set ablaze – but I have just come through a weekend spent camping with my two oldest children and 100 other squealing first graders in the woods for Mother’s Day. I am unbreakable.

At his behest, I went to read up on Angelina Jolie and her choice to have a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery  – a ‘luxury’ most people who suffer from breast cancer will never dream of enjoying. Women with breast cancer in lower income and developing nations will most likely expire once the disease has run its course. Those are just the facts, and this has everything to do with access to not only medical care, but the availability of such. In my (half) native Ghana for instance, there are six oncologists to serve a population of 22 million in the entire country.


You don’t have to be an authority in mathematics or economics to see immediately that demand far outweighs supply and to forecast what the trickle down issues are when you have SIX oncologists with the mandate of caring for an entire nation. We’re lucky in Ghana though, aren’t we? How many oncologist live and work in the DR Congo?

I read Angelina’s op-ed piece and had no thoughts. I don’t like Angelina Jolie. (I have never forgiven her for the Brad Pitt, Jennifer Anniston thing 8 or 9 years ago. How that affects me and the pot I cook my rice in, I have not discovered yet, but there it is.)

Breast cancer runs in my family. So do ovarian fibroids. I have had several cousin, aunts, a grandmother and a mother all have their innards cut out and discarded in an effort to save or extend their lives. In some cases it worked, and it others it didn’t. God rest those who lost their fight against a disease which kept their cells replicating under it eventually killed them.

If it sounds as though I am glib about the subject, it’s because I am. There is something else that runs in my family that I fear far more than cancer. Only the earliest readers of my blog know about it because I don’t discuss it often. The disease I dread more than any other is mental illness – and like cancer, it’s generational and hereditary.

This Mother’s Day, I spent a great deal of grey matter devoted to the memory of my mother. She’s not dead – don’t worry. But I haven’t spoken to her in years. I think she’s bipolar, but she refuses to get her head examined. She thinks she’s perfect. My mother and I stopped getting along right when she hit menopause and I hot puberty. In my younger years, I just attributed our furious bouts to a clash of hormones. But as I got older and learned to lock myself in a room or not come home at all until I learned to cage my raging emotions so as not to clash with her, I saw that she was not getting any better. My mother was just irrational. It was unbearable. It ruined a good portion of my life. When I had the choice and the chance to disassociate myself from her, I took it without hesitation. I thought we had a bad mother-daughter relationship, and that was the end of that… until I began to hear whispers from my extended family.

“You know why your Momma is crazy and your Aunt Jane ain’t, right? It’s because she wasn’t your grandmomma’s daughter.”

“Your Grandma and her mom didn’t get along either. I once watched your great-grand mother beat her daughter until blood came out of her ears for going to watch a movie. Mistaken identity you see…”

“Lawd, your mom walks to the beat of her own drum. You know mental illness runs in your side of the family, right? You should get that checked out.”

No, Auntie So-and-So; I did not know that. Thank you for delivering the news with such finesse.

photo(10) As my elders calculate it, I have four and a half more years before I go stark, raving mad. I’ll be 40 and Nadjah will  be 13… just entering puberty.

And the insanity will start all over again.

And I’m not sure what to do about it.

And that scares me.

This article has 13 comments

  1. Ekuba

    Very well said. My best friend’s auntie died last year because of this same issue. She had a lump in her breast and was referred by her doctor for a mammogram but there are few mammogram machines in Accra so she had to join a queue at ridge (mind you some women had been in this queue for a year). After some months, she got her mammogram test by which time the cancer had accelerated rapidly and she died months after. But who cares about her or other poor women like her? Their story isn’t glamorous enough to even make it to CNN’s trivia news. They’re just a statistic.

    • Malaka

      Stories like this are so frustrating to me. How can you spend a year just waiting to get a mammogram? What in God’s name! As though we are living in 18th century Europe. I’m telling you, we need to really think about the way we invest our money in Ghana. Sending MPs to Argentina to do absolutely nothing while women are dying because they can’t even get a diagnosis for their ailments. Mmmchewww!!!

    • guest

      This is sad. If the lump was palpable, an excisional biopsy would have helped- take out the lump, and worry about the mammogram later. Doing the mammogram wouldn’t have changed the fact that she probably needed to have the lump removed anyway 🙁

  2. Patricia Dijkman

    Dear Malaka,

    In fact, you are telling two stories. Of which the latter one is the most urgent and interesting one. I grew up with a very depressed and bipolar dad – but only found out he was suffering from mentall illness after he died. He forced me to leave home when I was 19 years old – during one of his bipolar moods. I never ever understood what triggered him and why I had to leave all of the sudden – until I found out about his state of mind.

    Unfortunately the bipolar genes had already spread before my dad died. It runs in the family – with devastating irreversible effects. It is a terrible illness – ruining family ties forever.

    I fully understand and support the decision you made not seeing your mom again. I think it was very wise and brave decision. Some times the only way to carry on your life in a healthy way – is to cut off relationships – even when it is your own mother.

    May be I can reassure you Malaka. I am almost 44 years old – and there is no sign whatsoever from bipolar disorder nor depression. The tell-tale signs of mental disorders should already have been there. And if you have not noticed any signs yet – I am very confident that the default settings of your mental dipswitches are not the bipolar state.

    So yes – I do understand why Angelina’s breasts are not on your mind.

    Take care & mazzeltov!

    • Malaka

      Thank you for that Patricia, and thank you for sharing your story about your dad. That had to have been so tough for you growing up. I’m glad everything is going well for you these days.

      I need to delve more into my family medical history anyway, mental illness aside. I have kids, and they will need to have this information as well.

  3. trishdar

    I think maybe we are judging the situation too harshly, maybe Angie’s decision to have a boob job may help the world. If more people can draw the parallel between an elective boob job and a one year wait for a mammogram and literally a one to a million ratio for oncologists then maybe finally someone will do something to help the real cancer that plagues those of us who live in places were getting cancer means there’s a 5% chance for survival.

  4. Nana Ama

    The first mammogram machines in Ghana were bought by donations from women at Makola and other urban markets in Ghana. (n 1992, I helped organise a reception in London for the fundraising team (two women) from the National Council for Women and Development (Ghana, set up by Dr. Nkrumah by UN charter in the 50s) to Europe and North America to ask for more funds and to purchase the equipment. When asked, most of the market women gave willingly, with many lifting up their kaba to show their mastectomies! You’d think subsequent regimes would build on the women’s self-help approach and set up specialist clinics. Nada! I won’t be surprised if the same few machines are the ones being used to handle what is becoming an epidemic of breast cancer in the country!

    I do not know all the medical pros and cons about mastectomies as a means of avoiding breast cancer. But using it as prevention reminds me too much of the fable where a woman and her family and friends weep at the sight (and thought) of an axe which is hanging from the ceiling falling and killing her! Who knows tomorrow? It might never happen! Then again, it might, but there could be a cure! Not trying to be flippant or judgemental on such a touchy and personal subject. Just musing aloud, that’s all!

    • Malaka

      I COMPLETELY agree with you Nana Ama! I understand the notion of prevention being better than cure, but this is rather extreme! Just because something MIGHT happen is no guarantee that it will. But Ms Jolie does everything in the extreme, doesn’t she?

      • Nana Ama

        Yes, expert at doing extreme!:) Covet another woman’s husband, check! Keep him wondering if you would ever marry him, check! Have a menagerie of kids of different ethnicities, check! Have twins of each gender by IVF because you are too impatient after having one child naturally, to allow nature to take its course for other kids, check!

  5. guest

    So if you tested positive for the BRCA1 gene, with a strong family history, what would you do?

  6. amma

    That was insightful. thank you for sharing. Your mother’s piece needs to be a post on its own it will help many.

  7. Lizzy Kenn

    Special thanks go to God almighty for using dr. okorom in curing my Cancer disease, I was having a Breast cancer and doctor told me that I have two years to live, that news brought sadness into my life, I was depressed, don’t know what to do. One faithful day I saw a testimony on how a spell caster cured a lady, who is called Rachael Mark, due to her testimony the man is a great man, quickly I copied his email, then I contacted him and he asked me not to bother myself that all my problems are over. I was happy to hear such words, he told me to buy some items, though I couldn’t find the items myself he asked me to send down the money to buy the items for me, faithfully I sent him the money he bought the items and prepared a cure for me. He told me that he is going to send the cure through courier delivery service, I paid to the courier delivery service, then, I got the cure, he instructed me on how I will take the cure. I took the cure and I was freed from the cancer, I went for scanning, the cancer was no longer there. I am very grateful for what he did for me. If you have any disease you can contact him via email on dr.okoromspellhome@live.com,

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