The actress Angelina Jolie recently revealed she’d had a double mastectomy after genetic testing revealed the BRCA1 gene linked to breast cancer. Now that the long series of procedures is done, Jolie is speaking out in order to demystify the issues around breast cancer testing and preventive treatments.
Jolie writes, “[My children and I] often speak of ‘Mommy’s mommy,’ and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me…. [Since the procedure], my chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”
The overwhelming reaction from the public has been positive and supportive, even warm. “Your mother would be proud of you,” one commenter wrote. Breast cancer survivors and others have applauded Jolie’s candor, her courage in tackling the issue head-on, and her thoughtfulness in discerning the best way forward for herself, in consultation with her doctor.
Jolie’s story has highlighted just how vulnerable we are to illness—all of us. Wealth and status do not protect us from the limitations of our human bodies, and health can be a fickle friend to us all.
What we’re not talking about enough is this: the genetic testing and treatment Jolie undertook are only available to a relatively small number of people with the means to afford it. Jolie herself acknowledges this discrepancy, writing, “Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live.”
Privilege does not protect us from health scares. But other things being equal, people with good health care have a better chance of prevailing over medical crises than those who don’t. Granted, the issues around health care are unbelievably complex, and as a nation, we can’t even decide whether health care is a right or a privilege. Even post-Obamacare, there is considerable discussion about how to implement an effective health care system. But details aside, nothing highlights the gap between haves and have-nots quite like health care.
How does all of this relate to poor Naaman? Unlike Jolie’s personal medical journey, made public after the fact, Naaman’s leprosy is openly apparent, as clear as the nose on his face. (Sorry.) Despite struggling with this socially-unacceptable illness, however, Naaman manages to remain a prominent commander in the Aramean army. What’s clear is that he’s a health-care “have”: when a potential solution presents itself, he arrives ready to pay for his treatment with a letter from the king of Aram and ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.
Of course, the healing doesn’t happen with the pomp and circumstance that Naaman would like. (And perhaps there’s something to be made of that fact; how often do we hope for solutions to our expanding waistlines that are more spectacular than boring ol’ diet and exercise!) But the fact remains that Naaman is granted an audience with the healer—the prophet of Israel—the one who can cure his condition. He has both the connections and the means to get treated.
One wonders whether an Aramean peasant would be able to access the same care. In fact, the previous chapter has Elisha engaging in a little quid pro quo with a “wealthy” Shunammite woman. She builds a guest wing on her house to accommodate the traveling prophet, and after asking what he can do in return, he promises the long-barren woman a son. Add in the interplay between secular and religious authority—does Elisha intervene in order to help the king save face?—and it is a strange story indeed, with all kinds of odd power dynamics.
And yet, powerful Naaman’s journey would have been impossible without several nameless ordinary people intervening on his behalf. The Godly Play approach to teaching stories to children often asks, “Is there anything you could take out of this story and still have the story?” Without a young slave girl in Naaman’s house, who tells her mistress about the prophet in Israel, there is no story. Without Elisha’s messenger, delivering the message to Naaman that he should wash in the Jordan, there is no story. And without Naaman’s servants, saying, “Why don’t you at least try it?” there would be no story. As much as we rely on the medical doctor with the expensive degree and years of training, anyone who’s been in the hospital knows that it is the nurse, the technician, the phlebotomist, the cafeteria worker, the cleaning staff, who help make a hospital a place of real healing.
It is admirable that Naaman’s servants stick their neck out to help him achieve the healing that he needed. And it’s touching to hear so many people praise (and even pray for) Angelina Jolie and her family. Now we just need to translate that outpouring of support into action for those who do not have the many advantages that they had. As Bono’s U2 sings in the song “Crumbs from Your Table,” “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” In too many cases, it does.
The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is a writer of numerous articles and essays, and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time through Chalice Press. The book has been featured on PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and in Publishers Weekly, and was named a “must read for 2013″ by Ministry Matters.