A letter to Angelina Jolie

An open letter from the founder of Life's Door, at the Institute of Radiotherapy, Tel Aviv Medical Center.

May 27, 2013 21:53
2 minute read.
Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie370. (photo credit: Reuters)

Dear Ms. Jolie,

Shalom from a longtime fan who deeply admires your artistic work as well as your social convictions. I appreciate particularly your perspective on adoption, among the most important of mitzvot.

As an oncologist, I have the privilege of caring for people who suffer from cancer. In our clinic, just one week after your candid, public announcement about your prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, the daily discourse is changing for patients and medical staff alike.

My colleagues and I envision how we might have counseled you. Each of us has wondered: Would I have recommended the preventive procedure or merely described alternatives? In our waiting rooms, a senior nurse has observed an increase in numbers of men accompanying their partners as well as significantly more hand-holding among patients waiting for treatments.

Many of my patients come from a highly educated population in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Typically, they research their options well. During the past few days, however, patient queries sound less perfunctory and more focused. Tolerance for doctors who dodge questions seems to have vanished.

Women have long sought accurate quantification of the risks associated with treatment choices, decisions to forego therapy and other controversies. Suddenly requests have turned into demands for more precise answers. Yesterday, when I appeared surprised by a volley of questions coming from a previously shy breast cancer survivor, the patient assertively paraphrased an idiom about angels, “I want to be on the side of Angelina in this journey!” “So,” I told her, “do I.”

An insight came just today from a patient of approximately your age who said, “Angelina Jolie has been endowed with so many gifts. Now we see, she has also been chosen.”

My patient, whose mother-tongue is Hebrew, then helped me understand the nature of “choseness.”

The synthesis of physical beauty and honed acting skills is a rare combination. A defect in the BRCA1 gene is an unusual event. The confluence of so many rarities is seldom seen in one individual. When oncologists like me try to put a rare event into perspective for the layman, we often make an analogy with winning a lottery, and then reflexively offer our standard joke about cancer being the lottery no one wants to win.

Indeed, considerable fear and stigma still accompany a diagnosis of cancer. When one is chosen for something that is unwanted, the inclination is to ask “why me?” While many react with shame and reclusiveness, some paradoxically respond with curiosity and grace.

You have decided to accept what is ostensibly an undesirable role and to dare us to maturely embrace the attendant challenges.

Choseness is ultimately about responsibility.


Benjamin W. Corn, M.D.

Professor and chairman, Institute of Radiotherapy, Tel Aviv Medical Center,
Founder Life’s Door

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