Melissa Etheridge and “The Brave Choice”

3332738782_f82c977438There’s been a lot of discussion of “shaming” recently on the Ms. Blog: fat-shaming, slut-shaming, young-mother shaming.

Let’s add to that list cancer-shaming.

Last week, singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge, in an interview with the Washington Blade, was asked how she felt—as a breast cancer survivor—about actor/director Angelina Jolie’s public announcement that she had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy to lessen her risk for breast cancer. Here’s what Etheridge said:

I have to say I feel a little differently. I have that gene mutation too and it’s not something I would believe in for myself. I wouldn’t call it the brave choice. I actually think it’s the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer. My belief is that cancer comes from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body. It’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not. 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. 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. I really encourage people to go a lot longer and further before coming to that conclusion.

Although she may not have consciously meant it this way, Etheridge’s remarks suggest that if you had or have the disease, you essentially brought it on yourself with poor nutrition, too much stress, too much acidity. She blames herself for her own cancer, and by implication suggests that cancer is the “fault” of those who have gotten it.

Isn’t cancer bad enough without being blamed or shamed for having gotten it?

When Etheridge was recovering from her treatment for breast cancer, many of us were moved by her energy and spirit. There she was on stage at the 2005 Grammy Awards, rocking a chemo-bald head as she belted out “Piece of My Heart.” As so many of those dealing with cancer do, she inspired. She wasn’t going to let the disease take away her music, and that made all of us think, perhaps, that we shouldn’t let life’s pains and roadblocks suck away everything we love. She was obviously a fighter and, metaphorically, she made us all want to be fighters as well.

We also have admired Etheridge for speaking out against people wearing animal fur, speaking up for LGBT rights and “rocking for choice” to support abortion rights.

But here she is in 2013 criticizing Angelina Jolie for having not made “the brave choice.”

The discovery that the BRCA mutation increases the risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers has given women a choice we previously didn’t have: to preemptively stave off certain cancers by removing our breasts and/or ovaries. That’s not an easy choice by any stretch of the imagination (many women probably don’t even want to take the BRCA test in the first place because, if they’re positive, the choice suddenly looms in their lives). But it isn’t our business to monitor other women’s choices, and decide who’s brave and who isn’t. Yet Etheridge judged Angelina Jolie fearful for deciding to have her breasts removed and then going through the discomforts of breast reconstruction. Would it have been braver for her to wait on pins and needles before every six-month cancer screening, knowing of her elevated risk for the diseases that killed her mother and her aunt?

When we talk about bravery, we should consider, too, how Jolie made this choice even in light of her public image as a highly sexualized actor. She decided to remove her breasts in a profession that celebrates breasts uber alles–how radical that is! Remember the film Valley of the Dolls? The character of sexy actor Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) commits suicide rather than having a mastectomy when diagnosed with breast cancer. Jolie, in comparison, has put herself forward as someone most concerned with preserving her health, and thus being around as long as possible to raise her six children, rather than maintaining a less-than-honest glamorous facade.

Melissa Etheridge’s comments only make one respect that much more Angelina Jolie’s openness about BRCA and prophylactic treatments for hereditary cancers. As for Etheridge—a brave hero herself—let’s hope she rethinks judging the courage of others and the choices that they make.

Photo of Melissa Etheridge by Flickr user Raphael Amado Deras under license from Creative Commons 2.0

About

Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage.