Skip to main content

When celebrities share secrets, good things happen

By Laura Wexler, Special to CNN
May 17, 2013 -- Updated 1109 GMT (1909 HKT)
Joan Lunden returned to her old stomping grounds, ABC's "Good Morning America," with a personal news update on June 24. The former "GMA" host revealed that she's facing an "aggressive" form of breast cancer. Joan Lunden returned to her old stomping grounds, ABC's "Good Morning America," with a personal news update on June 24. The former "GMA" host revealed that she's facing an "aggressive" form of breast cancer.
HIDE CAPTION
Celebrities battle cancer
Celebrities battle cancer
Celebrities battle cancer
Celebrities battle cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
Celebrities and battles with cancer
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Laura Wexler: Angelina Jolie deserves credit for disclosing her preventive mastectomy
  • She says Jolie joins tradition of celebrities whose openness has improved life in America
  • Wexler: There's much we don't know about breast cancer; a movement for change is needed

Editor's note: Laura Wexler is Professor and former Chair of the Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at Yale and a fellow of the Op-Ed Project's Public Voices Fellowship Program. She is co-author of "Pregnant Pictures", a book about photographic images of the pregnant body.

(CNN) -- Coming out of the closets of our culture seems to be the thing to do these days, but it is not a new phenomenon.

In the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, dozens of American women signed a statement declaring "We Have Had Abortions," even though abortion was still mostly illegal in the United States. Celebrity names dotted the list—Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Lillian Hellman and Billie Jean King among them.

This consciousness-raising maneuver played a key role in changing public attitudes toward abortion. It contributed to what legal scholars Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel call the "successive waves of arguments" that "prompted growing public support for liberalizing access to abortion." A year later, the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision decriminalized most abortions.

Laura Wexler
Laura Wexler

In 1978, former first lady Betty Ford entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital's Drug and Rehabilitation Service, and publicly admitted her own alcohol and drug dependency. In 1982, she became founding director of the Betty Ford Center for the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. While many remained silent, celebrities Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Ali MacGraw all chose to openly share their experience at the center.

At a 1991 press conference, NBA megastar Magic Johnson announced that he had tested positive for HIV. He retired from basketball and subsequently served as a public voice for HIV-AIDS education, prevention and anti-discrimination efforts.

Opinion: Jolie's choice carries risks along with benefits

Last month, NBA player Jason Collins announced that he is gay. While he justly deserves praise for an action that puts him among the first active American athletes in any of the four major professional team sports to publicly so identify, it has also been widely noted that he is far from early or alone in the coming out ranks of major athletes. Celebrity names already dot that list too -- Greg Louganis, Martina Navratilova, Sheryl Swoopes and former NFL player Wade Davis among them.

Tuesday, Angelina Jolie made public the fact that she elected to undergo a double mastectomy, at the age of 37. This was her attempt to lower her risk of breast cancer, given the fact that she carries "the breast cancer gene." She hopes to encourage other women to consider the potentially life-saving procedure for themselves. No doubt, other women will now come forward. A new list of celebrity names will coalesce.

Support pours in for Angelina Jolie
CNN anchor opens up about her cancer
Empowered patient: Angelina Jolie

What is particularly remarkable about the public statement made by Angelina Jolie is that she is a young, beautiful, sex symbol. She risks her career by changing her image in this way. To medicalize her breasts in the public's perception is potentially to de-sexualize them. The bodily care of cancer prevention is far from the glamorous dream world that Hollywood sells.

Clearly, Jolie has chosen the high moral ground of trying to save lives by publicizing the procedure and stating that she feels as beautiful as ever. We should be grateful for her straightforward and courageous statement.

Indeed, we should be grateful for all -- celebrities or not --who have driven social change by publicly outing themselves. It is arguable that we might not have had as much support for abortion reform, or addiction treatment, or HIV-AIDS research, or marriage equality, without them. Destigmatizing cancer prevention surgery will happen more quickly if celebrities and others get publicly vocal about their personal health choices.

Sambolin: I feel empowered, supported in cancer fight

Importantly, abortion and addiction and HIV-AIDS and love are different issues from preventative mastectomy. Abortion is a difficult but fundamentally ordinary choice in an untenable situation. Addiction is a disease that is relatively well understood, even if it is still difficult to treat. HIV-AIDS is a global pandemic that is by now well known. Marriage equality is a function of health and happiness in the first place.

But the phenomenon of breast cancer still eludes scientists. We still do not know how to prevent it or reliably cure it, save perhaps by surgically removing a vulnerable organ.

Furthermore, it seems that a lot of our current ideas about it are not even correct. While the public receives the message that getting regular mammograms is an effective preventive strategy, it has recently been reported that such screenings turn out to be only minimally effective in lowering the morbidity of the disease. As Peggy Orenstein wrote in the New York Times, our war against cancer has been a "feel-good war."

In fact, given the incidence of false positives, and of cancers that do not actually need to be treated, such screenings can cause harm. According to a survey of 30 years of screening published in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 2012, as cited by Orenstein, "mammography's impact is decidedly mixed: it does reduce, by a small percentage, the number of women who are told they have late-stage cancer, but it is far more likely to result in over diagnosis and unnecessary treatment, including surgery, weeks of radiation and potentially toxic drugs."

When a celebrity such as Angelina Jolie makes such a generous and powerful intervention, it is right for the world to pay attention. But the list needs to grow longer, as well, of those demanding greatly increased support for primary cancer research and stricter environmental controls on the toxic substances we eat and breathe. Cancer needs a social movement demanding change.

Otherwise, no matter how many celebrities and others come courageously forward, and how well the world adapts to preventive mastectomy, it will not be enough.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura Wexler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT