Was Angelina Jolie “Medically Hexed?”

Angelina Jolie

In this New York Times article, A-list actress Angelina Jolie bravely announced that she made the tough decision to undergo elective bilateral mastectomy after her doctors warned her that she has an 87% risk of developing breast cancer and a 50% risk of getting ovarian cancer because her mother died of breast cancer and she carries the BRCA1 gene. While I fully support Angelina’s right to write The Prescription for herself, and while I admire her courage to go public with what some might hide, as an OB/GYN physician with a passion for mind-body medicine, this breaking news concerns me for a variety of reasons.

The Nocebo Effect

In Chapter 2 of Mind Over Medicine, I share the scientific data about “the nocebo effect,” the opposite of the placebo effect, when we think something will harm our health – and it does. In one case study, a man was misdiagnosed with cancer and told he would only live 3 months. He died exactly 3 months later and was found to have no cancer on autopsy.

In another case study that is the stuff of fairy tales, a woman born on Friday the 13th in the Okefenokee Swamp near the Georgia-Florida border was one of three girls delivered that day by a midwife, who proclaimed that all three girls, born on such a fateful day, were hexed. The first, she announced, would die before her 16th birthday.  The second would not survive her 21st. And the patient in question was told she would die before her 23rd birthday.

As it turns out, the first two girls died within one day of their 16th and 21st birthdays. The third woman, terrified that she would die on her 23rd birthday, showed up at the hospital the day before her birthday, hyperventilating.  Soon afterwards, just before she turned 23, she died, proving the midwife’s predictions correct. This is an extreme example of the nocebo effect, when fear-based thoughts about your health can actually kill you.

“Medical Hexing”

In his book Spontaneous Healing, Dr. Andrew Weil argues that physicians may unwittingly engage in what he calls “medical hexing.” When we pronounce patients with “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal” illnesses, we may be programming their subconscious minds with negative beliefs and activating stress responses that do more harm than good. What proof do we have that they will not be one of the case studies who winds up in the Spontaneous Remission Project, having been cured of a so-called “incurable” illness?

By labeling a patient with a negative prognosis and robbing a patient of the hope that cure might be possible, we may ultimately prove the poor prognosis we have bestowed upon our patient correct. Wouldn’t we be better off offering hope and triggering the mind to release health-inducing chemicals intended to aid the body’s self-repair mechanisms?

Is it really healthy for any of us to know that we might have an 87% risk of any illness? Do we really want to poison our minds with such fear-based thoughts that then force us to make decisions about whether or not we will electively cut off perfectly healthy body parts?

The Slippery Slope of Elective Surgery

Once we start surgically removing healthy body parts, it’s a slippery slope. Should we cut out appendixes and gallbladders in babies, since appendicitis and gallbladder disease can kill you? Should we cut out uteri and ovaries after childbearing, since all they’re doing is waiting to get cancer? Should we cut off all moles because some could become melanomas?

How is it that we live in a culture where barbaric surgeries – like elective bilateral mastectomy as prevention for breast cancer – have become not only normalized, but even recommended?

When We Live In Fear, We Predispose Ourselves To Illness

To live in fear of what might happen only triggers stress responses in the body. And as I teach in Mind Over Medicine, the body has natural self-repair mechanisms that can kill cancer cells, fight infection, repair broken proteins, and retard aging. But they ONLY work if the nervous system is relaxed. When the amygdala in your primal lizard brain is threatened – as it would be if anyone told you that you have an 87% risk of getting cancer – your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are going to deactivate. And when this happens, you’re at risk not only of breast cancer, but of other illnesses.

The Risks of Genetic Testing

Should Angelina Jolie have undergone BRCA testing? There’s no simple answer to this. Angelina Jolie might carry the breast cancer gene, but that in no way guarantees that she will get breast cancer. While the presence of the BRCA gene – and her family history of breast cancer – may statistically put her at an 87% risk of breast cancer, there is no way to know whether she will be one of the 87% who get sick or one of the 13% who remain healthy. But what we do know from the scientific literature is this – what you believe about your health is likely to come true.

Your body is your business, and you are the guardian of your mind, so it’s your responsibility to be careful what kinds of thoughts you put into your brain.

We Are Not Victims Of Our Genes

Epigenetic research proves to us that environmental influences, including hormonal factors that are affected by your thoughts, beliefs, and feeling, affect how your genes express themselves.

Your genetic code is like a blueprint that can be interpreted in millions of different ways. Before the Human Genome Project, biologists assumed that we would have at least 120,000 genes, one gene for every protein made in the body. We now know that each of those 25,000 genes can express itself in at least 30,000 ways via regulatory proteins that are influenced by environmental signals. Studies have even shown that environmental factors can override certain genetic mutations, effectively changing how the DNA is expressed. These altered genes can even be passed down to offspring, allowing the offspring to express healthier characteristics, even though they still carry the genetic mutation.

Few diseases result from a single gene mutation. Less than 2% of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, and beta thalassemia, result from a single faulty gene, and only about 5% of cancer patients can attribute their diseases to heredity.  Scientists are now learning that the genome is far more responsive to the environment of the cell – especially the hormonal environment created by our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings – than we once thought. (Yes, how you think can change how your DNA expresses itself!)

The study of epigenetic control is revolutionizing how the medical community thinks about genes. We used to think that some people were blessed with “good genes,” while others were cursed with what some in the medical community insensitively refer to as “piss poor protoplasm.” But we need not be victims of our DNA.

BRCA Testing

Angelina Jolie might be a BRCA1 carrier, but that doesn’t mean she need be a victim of her genes either. She may feel she has made an empowering choice to be proactive about breast cancer prevention – and more power to her.  I respect and honor her body wisdom and intuition and greatly admire her willingness to speak her truth.

But I worry that other women with family histories of breast cancer will now rush out to get BRCA testing, and if they test positive, they will follow her lead and undergo potentially unnecessary and possibly dangerous elective surgery. I sincerely hope others think twice before undergoing genetic testing that will put them in the difficult position of having to choose between their breasts and their peace of mind.

But as always, I know that you know your body better than any doctor does – and only you can know what’s right for you.

What Do You Think?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

  • Mim

    Brave Woman Angelina Jolie and brave article. Thank you! My mother had an aggressive breast cancer. My sister and I both a ductal carcinoma in situ caught early. I have a niece that years ago wanted me to test and I declined. Today she could be tested herself and has not which I find interesting.

    Thank you for sharing a different point of view! I also work at a Cancer Center and find that all people do make their own decisions. That is a gift. They all do not have the resources for the testing. That may be a gift as well.

    I choose to face what I need to face if it happens.

  • Tara

    When I first read about what Ms. Jolie had done something inside of me felt very uneasy. I agree with you, Dr. Rankin, that we must listen to our bodies, and above all respect ourselves as human beings. I don’t agree with the way doctors instill fear in patients. Why do people living with cancer seem to always love their oncologists? Because the doctor makes them believe that the patient’s health is totally in their hands. But this is far from the truth. Each one of us has the ability to tap into the map of the body. We are intuitive beings and if we listen clearly we can hear what the body is telling us. “This food makes me sluggish. This situation is not serving me. My cells are fighting disease everyday”. But somehow we do not trust the body to guide us. We allow the pressures of media, others around us, and our doctors to prescribe what is best for us. If we allow our minds to comprehend the messages of the body we could live healthier lives. We can be whole, physically and emotionally, and better for each other. I can’t help but believe and feel that lobbing off body parts as a preventative measure sounds completely barbaric. It is western medicine taking a giant leap backwards.

  • Myriam

    Excellent article! Never had a mammogram and no interest in genetic testing for the very reasons you state! Wrote this on my facebook last night so reading it written by an MD is pretty cool!

  • What bothers me in all this, is that we now know we can reprogram genes, that’s what gene replacement therapy is all about. I suggest reading the book The Spark Of Life, it’s not quack science! All evidence points that BRCA 1 & 2, every code sequence, can be reprogrammed electromagnetically. I agree that Jolie fell under the spell of modern medicine. This is another form of body modification. Remember David Cronenberg’s movie Crash? Like that.

  • What bothers me in all this, is that we now know we can reprogram genes, that’s what gene replacement therapy is all about. I suggest reading the book The Spark Of Life, it’s not quack science! All evidence points that BRCA 1 & 2, every code sequence, can be reprogrammed electromagnetically. I agree that Jolie fell under the spell of modern medicine. This is another form of body modification. Remember David Cronenberg’s movie Crash? Like that.

  • I completely agree. My gynecologist wanted to take my ovaries out because of my mom who died at age 37 of ovarian cancer and my grandmother had breast cancer. I said no ..I love my ovaries!!!!. another sad fact of our society ..women are not taught to love their bodies. WHen their periods stop they celebrate ..I had lots of grief around it and age 53 i am fine( have 3kids) but it was sad to think that part of my life is over. the messages sent ARE often the messages received.

  • Mary

    Ms. Jolie lost her maternal grandmother, who was in her 40’s, and her mother, who was in her 50’s, to ovarian and breast cancer. Her mother had both, and I believe her grandmother had ovarian. While I agree that the mind can do much more for and against our health than we can imagine, there are facts to be considered and these are hers. For one, I would not want the recommended treatment for a patient with these odds – doctor visits, clinical exams, MRI’s, and mammograms alternating every 3 months, living under the fear that the disease is developing in my body (which she would have had, genetic testing or not, due to her family history), looking at my children and hoping I don’t have to leave them too soon. Then there is the horror if the disease did develop – the terrible treatment options and the guilt she may have felt for not doing something when she could have.

    Sometimes knowledge is power, especially medically. She had an option to prevent this from happening, as much as is in her control. No, of course organs shouldn’t be removed for no reason, and gallbladders and appendicitis don’t usually kill people. Ovarian cancer and breast cancer? Another matter. I use alternative medicine, nutrition, supplements, meditation, energy and body work as much as possible, but there are times when they may not be enough. As another writer shared, would you want to play Russian roulette with a gun that is 87% full of bullets?

  • Thanks Doc! I concur. Very well said!


    For myself, I try not to make ‘Fear Based’ choices. Statistics ARE NOT YOUR FRIEND. For example, a car manufacturer will not recall an entire fleet of vehicles based on a safety hazard until A CERTAIN (large) NUMBER OF PEOPLE HAVE DIED OR BEEN INJURED. I am not interested in being a statistic. My fear with this is for the future regulation/mandating – INTERFERENCE- the Medical Establishment in concert with an OVER-INVOLVED government in our personal freedoms in relation to our medical choices could one day be. This reminds me of that movie, where our DNA was scrutinized the minute we are born and our choices medically were no longer ours and are mandated by the government from day one. To allow yourself to identify yourself/align youself with such statistics is a mind trap. I do believe Dr. Mercola wrote about this procedure, and I feel like I recall him stating that cutting off your breasts does NOTHING… you can still get the cancer. Cancer is HUGE BUSINESS and as if the millions of people currently being treated werent enough, now the AMA is focussing their energy on PROSPECTIVE PATIENTS BY PLAYING ON FEAR.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you all for sharing your own thought process, input and experiences.

  • Julie Nusbaum

    Equating prophylactically removing your breasts when you have BRCA1 with removing the appendix or gallbladder in infants so they don’t die of appendicitis or gallbladder disease is an illogical comparison. Death from appendicitis or cholecystitis is obviously quite rare and they are diseases that can quite easily be surgically cured if they arise. Instead, the aggressive form of breast cancer that women with BRCA1 can’t be cured as simply as by having a cholecystectomy or an appendectomy. To me, that comparison and much of this article was really meant simply to be provacative rather than to really offer any grounded insight into another way to look at this decision. I’m very disappointed Frank Lipman would publish this article on his site.

  • Anonymous

    I doubt the stats are accurate. I doubt that the breast is the problem. The gene still exists, likely the same likelihood of cancer exists. Just because that type of cancer tends to start in the breasts doesn’t mean the breast caused the problem.

    She has a double whammy because she makes a living off her looks, including her breasts. She’ll have to have implants now, so her breasts won’t be real. That is going to affect her career, for sure.

    Oh wait….maybe it won’t.

  • Well said! I wonder where faith fits into this scenario?

  • Yes, she was medically hexed. There was a time, not long ago, before “early detection”, before “prevention,” that we lived our lives as they came. We were in the moment. And, while it might have been the case that many succumbed to illnesses “prevented” or even “cured” today, they were free of the disease and the anxiety of concern that plagues us now. In my mind, swapping one disease for another is not advancement. Instead, I’d suggest we re-examine the nature of human existence, indeed, its impermanence, and enjoy the lives we are given. It would behoove us to take our minds off of dying and back to living! I’d call that Skillful Living. If you wish to read more, try: 77 Questions for Skillful Living.

  • Kez

    I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer in my late 30’s. My amazing Oncologist said he would do everything possible to maintain my fertility, but unfortunately, my ovaries were full of cancer and had to be removed. I thought I was doing everything right – I ate healthy, organic foods, never smoked or drank alcohol, exercised, meditated, prayed and used paraben-free products. I was at a loss regarding how someone like me could possibly get Cancer. My answer came during treatment (which included acupuncture, massage and herbs) when I found out that I had the BRCA gene and that my risk of Breast Cancer was 87%. I see my doctor every 3 months for exams, ultrasounds, mammograms and MRI’s and still live in fear of getting Breast Cancer as well as having the Ovarian Cancer return. I will be getting the same surgery that Ms. Jolie had later this year. For those of you naysayers, perhaps if you were given the diagnosis that I was, you might think differently. Many of you say that doctors are playing on fear, but again, I lived a very healthy life and was diagnosed with one the deadliest Cancers out there. I take issue with this article and would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with anyone willing to do so.

  • Genes are not the determinating factor that this statistics make them out to be. If they were then there would be just as much cancer 50 years ago as there is today. Environmental issues are huge and they are contributing to cancer, autism, fibromyalgia and more. Research Dr. Young and also look at epigenetics.

  • Methinks1776

    What I think is you should change your tag line to “voice of sustainable quackery and inability to grasp statistics.”

    When, based not on cute stories about hexes during swamp births but on actual, pear-reviewed medical research and a test of your own genes, you know that your particular genes make you highly susceptible to a particularly virulent form of cancer leading to an early grave, you can’t just think it away. There isn’t enough kale juice in the world, baby. That BRCA test hasn’t been around very long. Are you suggesting that the women with the BRCA mutation who succumbed to the cancer in the past just weren’t positive thinkers?

    If I told you that if you go sky-diving, 87% of the time your parachute won’t open, you’ll take the leap because “there’s no way of knowing if you’re going to be one of the 87% whose ‘shoot doesn’t open and you’ll drop like a rock and smash into a million pieces.”?

    “what you believe about your health is likely to come true.”

    That’s because when the odds are around 87% that you’re going to die an early and painful death, you most probably will.

    “Less than 2% of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea,
    and beta thalassemia, result from a single faulty gene, and only about
    5% of cancer patients can attribute their diseases to heredity.”

    Completely irrelevant. We’re not talking about cancer in general but about a specific known mutation. In the case of a BRCA mutation, the risk of dying early is better than 60% and can increase based on other risk factors like family history. No doctor will suggest undergoing mastectomy purely because you have breasts and therefore have some risk of succumbing to breast cancer. If you really want to reassure people, then the statistic you should be throwing out is that only 2% of women carry the BRCA mutation, so few of us will have to face this difficult decision (and then get hammered by naturist zealots for it).

    “But I worry that other women with family histories of breast cancer will
    now rush out to get BRCA testing, and if they test positive, they will
    follow her lead and undergo potentially unnecessary and possibly
    dangerous elective surgery.”

    I worry that women with a strong family history of breast cancer won’t get tested and will listen to quacks who tell them they can meaningfully reduce a very high probability of a painful early death with kale juice and positive thinking.

    Not every woman with this mutation decides to undergo a mastectomy, but when the odds are this bad against you, it is not an irrational decision to take this relatively drastic step. For the vast majority of us, the risk is very much lower. The course of action that is reasonable for a 10% probability is much different than the course of action that is reasonable in the face of an 87% probability.

  • Methinks1776

    By significantly reducing a high probability of dying an early death from cancer, she HAS taken her mind of dying and back to living.

  • Methinks1776

    “Just because that type of cancer tends to start in the breasts doesn’t mean the breast caused the problem.”

    Believe it or not oncologists have actually thought of that and checked it out. Turns out, the breasts and ovaries are the problem.

  • Methinks1776

    Mercola has transformed from a real doctor into a quack and he’s intellectually dishonest. While he’s right that removing the breasts and ovaries does nothing to reduce your probability of colon cancer, you don’t have an 87% probability of colon cancer, if you do get colon cancer it’s highly survivable and the option of removing your colon in light of those probabilities is insane. You do, however, reduce your probability of cancer to the much lower probability the rest of us lucky suckers face. If, however, you have such a problem with paying to get treated for cancer, you are welcome to go untreated if you should god forbid contract it. My friends mother chose not to even go to a doctor until her cancer spread to every single organ and her bones and she finally arrived at the hospital in excruciating pain and died at 68. Before that she was taking a “wholistic” approach.

  • C

    Thank you Lissa, for this wonderfully written, thought provoking, heartfelt, and well informed article. Ever since the moment that I heard of this news about Angelina Jolie and her recent operation, I have been greatly disturbed by it. While I agree with you that it is her body, and therefore her choice, I am so saddened that our society has jumped on the bandwagon of expressing their support for her courage. This operation that she chose to undergo is savagery, pure and simple. She is a healthy 37 year old woman with no current breast cancer, and all the facts that you have so clearly laid out and explained in your article, point to the fact that there are clearly other roads to go down in making a choice about what to do when faced with a family history of cancer. Who’s to say that in 5 years there won’t be a break out discovery in medicine, that will enable women in Ms. Jolie’s position to have other options that are not so draconian and medieval as a bilateral mastectomy. My mother is a healthy woman today in her late 60’s, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her 20’s. She had fought a difficult disease and won, and has never raised me to believe that I will get ovarian cancer because she had it. I would never get the BRCA test for ovarian cancer for the exact reasons that Lissa states in her article, and that my mother and I feel so strongly about. Which is; why on earth would I ever undergo BRCA testing, and then possibly hear a negative result that would have me living in fear of death, instead of actually living my life and taking whatever comes when it comes, which is all that we can do anyway as we don’t have ultimate control over everything.
    Again, thank you Lissa for this very well informed and highly intelligent article.

  • Ktb

    I find this article so enraging that I will be unsubscribing to this newsletter, which I have always found educational, thoughtful and balanced.

  • Curious

    If large numbers of people follow the advice of the author, large numbers of people will die of cancer who would otherwise have survived,

    Math is actually real. The author seems unable to process the nature of probability, seeming to imply that there are even odds of being in the 87% or the 13%. We know that there’s a .87 probability we’re going to be in the 87% given the mutation. That’s an extremely important fact, and an aversion to numbers or math or logic really needs to be set aside when we’re talking about life and death.

    Most of the article doesn’t bear on the issue at all. The discussion of other cancer stats is irrelevant if we know the stats for the cancer we’re talking about, which we do.

    If you follow her advice, you’ve not taking your life seriously, or how your living or dying would impact the people who love you.

  • DarwinMommy

    No and no and WHAT?! Gene replacement therapy is not currently an option for anyone because we cannot control the insertion point of the wild-type gene. So many of the people who had received gene therapy as part of a clinical trial eventually developed leukemia due to the inserted gene interrupting some other essential gene, thereby making it non-functional.

    And I’m sorry, but the idea that genes can be “reprogrammed electromagnetically” is completely ludicrous. We can do some types of site-directed mutagenesis; but the process is done in vitro/ex vivo. There is NO in vivo application for it because in order to get permanent expression of the mutated protein, you’d have to insert it into a patient’s DNA, which as you now know cannot be controlled and often results in the disruption of other essential genes.

    And if you can cite for me an article, published in a peer-reviewed science journal, that details how genes can be reprogrammed in a patient electromagnetically, I will eat my hat.

  • JB

    Not knowing the specifics of Ms Jolie’s case, I find it inappropriate to comment on her decisions. But I do feel that some context needs to be given to this 87% risk that’s being portrayed as a line-in-the-sand value, because its not. Risk assessment in genetics has many shades of gray. They’re based on the how the genotype expresses itself (phenotype) and the penetrance of that expression into a population that’s positive for say, BRCA1. A relative risk is still a risk, but there are so many variables that can intervene, its anything but predictive.

  • Jennie

    If one is predisposed to cancer, cutting off body parts will not prevent it. Cancer will develop somewhere else….especially if she believes (nocebo effect) that because her grandmother and mother got it, she will. My mom had breast cancer. I don’t believe I will get it because she did.

  • Susan

    My mother had breast cancer and I didn’t think I would get it but I did.

  • jennie

    You forgot emotional stress, which most people walk around not understanding they are in fight or flight all of the time. Emotional stress causes Dis-ease, just as much, if not more than environmental stuff.

  • Jennie

    Math is real but statistics can be manipulated….did you know that cancer is big business now? It’s never going away. This is exactly why I don’t see doctors.

  • Jennie

    Amen! Me too!

  • Jennie

    You’re unsubscribing because it doesn’t have your same opinion? How is that balanced?

  • Jennie

    It’s spelled holistic.

  • Jennie

    Good for your friend’s mom! I’d do the same also!

  • Methinks1776

    Of course you’re right about the spelling. What you do with your body is entirely up to you. My friend’s mother marched to the beat of her own drummer and she lived and died (a very painful death) as she wanted and that’s admirable. However, one’s personal preferences do not excuse one’s sloppy thinking and logical fallacies.

  • Kendra

    As a nurse who believes in a holistic, patient-centered approach to health, I think this article is ridiculous. Every day I work with cancer patients who are dying agonizing deaths and so often it is a hopeless battle. This article is dangerous because it deviates well away from science, and even good common sense, with little to back it up. Read with discretion!

  • Karen

    Beautifully said :) Have spare hat here, but doubt it will be needed!

  • Karen

    and that will help you how??

  • Karen

    I agree completely with you Kez, following the article’s “logic”, with your great life style you would never have got cancer. See methinks 1776’s comments below. Facts are facts. I wish you all the best with your operation x

  • Maya

    I completely agree with the article.
    I had a radical hysterectomy with appendectomy when I was 27 due to cervical cancer. I am now 50 and have suffered numerous problems, thyroid problems, depression, anxeity, whenever I eat something that does not quite agree with me I have bowel problems followed by bladder infections and it just spreads to my legs, they swell up, … I think everyone should really think many times before going for radical surgical procedures.
    On my fathers side everyone had cancer all in different places. I run a very high risk, but I would never purposley throw my hormone system off ballance, risk impaired immune system, more potential inflamation, less ballance to my body.
    I belive in NON-mutilation, healthy lifestyle, good stress managment and surguries that are not radical and do as little permanent damage as possible.
    You can think you are doing everything right, but if you do get cancer, I believe there is a cause or a lifestyle/stress pattern undetected that you have to deal with.
    If you really feel safer getting the surgery, go for it, but you should be told the truth about concequences and additional risks due to scarring/castration. Do the cost/benefit calculation, check out your other options and then decide. Afterwards believe it is your best choice. Its a lot easier to live with any consequence.
    I didnt have a choice. It was the only procedure they did at the time. Nowdays with tumor as big/small as mine they preserve the uterus. I would go for it given a choice.
    I had the surgery, have all the side effects and had to deal with managing my life better now with additional problems.
    But this is how I feel and everyone should always choose for themselves.