Remember when Angelina Jolie had a preventative bilateral mastectomy? It’s because she tested positive for a genetic mutation that brings a propensity for breast and ovarian cancer. Turns out . . . I’ve got it too.
Everyone has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. But when one of those genes mutates, it means a person has a much higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. I tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation, meaning I have an increased risk of developing one or both cancers. By some estimates, I have an 87% chance of getting breast cancer by the age of 70, and 44% chance of getting ovarian cancer. All because of my genes and family health history.
My mom passed away from ovarian cancer, her sister had breast cancer, and one of my sisters tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation, so I always knew there was the possibility that I could have the mutation as well. Cancer is just a part of my life – in addition to my blood relations, I had a stepsister pass away from breast cancer, another stepsister go through breast cancer, twice, and in a cruel twist of my fate, my lovely stepmother is currently battling ovarian cancer.
What does this mean for my life right now? I hope to be able to have children one day, so I’m not ready to have any preventative surgeries that would remove my breasts or reproductive organs to prevent cancer from developing there. I’ve worked with my doctors to create a screening schedule so we can keep an eye on things and act quickly if anything looks off. I come from a family of engineers and accountants – we approach life with emotional rationality. On discovering that I was BRCA1 positive, responses varied; “This is not a diagnosis of anything,” “Don’t let this feel bigger than it is” and “Knowledge is power – that is all.” My rational mind usually does well in managing unfortunate circumstances, but there are still many things that I feel.
I am afraid. Afraid of dying the same way I saw mom die. Afraid of the ravaging effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Afraid of the pain that can come from surgery. Afraid because every year I get older without having children, my odds of getting cancer increase. Afraid that if I have children, I may have to leave them before I’m ready.
Yet I am grateful. Grateful to live in an age when I can know my risks ahead of time, and we have ways of monitoring my body. Grateful for awesome doctors who have always worked with me to prepare a plan. Grateful for amazing friends and family who have made me laugh and smile and helped me feel loved and supported. Grateful to have a brave BRCA1 positive sister who has blazed the trail and showed me the way to approach a new normal.
I am frustrated. Frustrated because my insurance company has decided to stop paying for one of the recommended screenings. Frustrated that no matter how many sources I throw at them showing it would be in their economic interest to keep me cancer free, they don’t want to pay for prevention. Frustrated that my future health may be held in the balance while someone at my insurance company, rather than my doctors, determines whether my policy should cover a breast MRI.
Yet I am hopeful. Hopeful because if my mom had known what I know, she would probably still be alive. Hopeful that we will catch any signs of cancer before they become deadly. Hopeful that life still has some wonderful surprises left for me. Hopeful because I KNOW it’s all in God’s hands, and that one way or another, I will be given the strength to endure whatever lies ahead.
Plus, as my sister once said, there are worse things in life than a medically-necessary boob job.