Can you be fearless in the face of cancer? I am the daughter of a woman who passed away from ovarian cancer. I am the daughter of a woman who found out too late that she was a carrier of the BRCA1 & BRCA2 gene. I am the daughter of a woman who probably wished she had known about this gene 20 years ago so she could take measurements to help her chances of survival.
I am the granddaughter of a woman who died from colon cancer, more than likely attributed to the same gene as carriers of these mutations have a higher risk of colon cancer. I am the great grand-daughter of a woman who had a tumor removed from her uterus the size of a grapefruit. The history is there and it’s terrifying. The BRCA1 & BRCA2 mutations are passed down from mothers and fathers. Men are at risk too.
Angelina Jolie also lost her mother to ovarian cancer. Her maternal grandmother also had ovarian cancer, as well as her great-grandmother. Like mine, her mom lived for ten years fighting it. Her mother passed away at the young age of fifty-six. She passed away in 2007. My mother passed away at the young age of fifty-seven. She passed away in 2006. Both diagnosed in their mid forties with a very aggressive cancer.
When Angelina Jolie came forward about her choice to remove both her breasts I was as stunned as the rest of the world. Not for the reasons some might think. I admire her choice to make her journey public, she instantly brought a much-needed spotlight on something not many people are aware of. She made choices for her own future and for her own personal health. She made choices that were within her right to make, and instead of keeping it private, she chose to share her story.
There are those that say the choices she made are extreme. Too extreme. I disagree. If my mother was alive today and knew she carried a gene that would make her risk of getting ovarian or breast cancer higher than the general population. Adding to that the family history we have of these cancers in our family. I know she would not have hesitated to do the very same thing Angelina chose to do.
Knowing my mother as well as I did, there is not a doubt in my mind she would have opted to remove her ovaries and her breasts. We all do this kind of thing every single day. We’re told everyday that if we don’t eat properly, gain weight, don’t exercise, we are putting our lives in jeopardy later on for all kinds of diseases. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, cancer, the list is endless.
So what do we choose to do about it? We choose to take preventive measures to keep those diseases at bay. We eat better. We cut down on sugar, junk food, and fats. We exercise and adopt healthier lifestyles. We choose to take action and not live in fear that as we age all these things will happen to us. We know the risks that could happen if we choose to do nothing. So most of us choose to make changes.
So for a woman who knows she carries a gene that elevates her chance of getting breast or ovarian cancer. Especially of that woman has a strong history of cancer I wonder why is it any different for that woman to choose her preventive measures? Is it because we as a society are uncomfortable with a woman choosing a mastectomy? Or choosing an oophorectomy? Or even a full hysterectomy?
The backlash from so many judgemental people since Angelina came forward is not surprising. We are a society that accepts plastic surgery as a normal thing. We aren’t phased by it. There are people who glorify it especially when it comes to celebrities. In this case I feel we have it all wrong.
When my mother found out about this gene. We were all tested. I went with my older sister. We sat and talked with a lovely woman named Norah. We asked all kinds of questions. Some she could answer and some she couldn’t but she was very reassuring through it all. It took six weeks. A very long six weeks.
During that time I reflected on what my choices would be. How would I deal with the results if they were positive. Would I live in fear with the risk numbers constantly floating through my mind. I knew in those six weeks that I would do whatever it took to stay here. With my husband and my children.
I would not live in fear and if I losing my breasts, ovaries, uterus meant that I could live a life fearlessly, I would do it all in a heartbeat. I would take preventive measures for my peace of mind. Being a carrier doesn’t automatically sentence you to breast or ovarian cancer. It may not, but for women with a family history of cancer, it is a lot scarier to pretend that it will never happen. To those people I would say ” why allow that risk to prevail at all?
Throughout the six-weeks that I waited for my own results. I had a lot of conversations with my mother. She cried so much. She felt guilty for possible passing along a gene that was totally out of her control. There she was, so sick from chemotherapy, feeling like she was a horrible mother. At first I thought she was being silly but at night when I lay awake, my mind unable to rest. I would start to think of my own children, and if perhaps I had passed it on to any of them. There were a lot of sleepless nights.
I would look down at my breasts and remember how I nourished all my children from them. How these children grew in my uterus and came from my ovaries. I would look at my husband, my person. I would watch my children playing & laughing. I would watch them sleep, listening to their precious breath. My children. My choice would not be hard. I understand that as a woman we are not our breasts. We are not our ovaries or uterus. We are so much more than that. We are life, light and love. I would rather be separated from my breasts, ovaries and uterus than be separated from my family.
My six-week journey ended with negative results. I was not a BRCA1 or BRCA2 carrier. The relief I felt was short-lived when a close relative’s results came back positive. And recently another close relative had the same results. I love both of these women dearly. If I have anything to say about Angelina bringing her story public it’s that we must not judge the decisions these amazing women make.
They are exercising their rights, the same rights we all have. The right for a chance to survive and be healthy. The right for a chance to live without fear. The right to peace of mind knowing they are taking some control back should they choose to. If my mother had known about these genes, she would maybe still be here with me.
Knowing too little too late is never a comfort to me. Now because of Angelina and so many other woman in the spotlight who have come forward, maybe more women will get informed. Learning your history is not always about where you come from, but what came with you in your DNA. If there are members of your family who have had breast, ovarian or even colon cancer, seek our medical advice. You may or may not need testing for these genes.
Remember knowledge is power. Power to possibly change an outcome of a life. Knowing your history and being proactive about it is not something to fear. It’s empowering because it gives us choices we never would have had. Knowledge of ourselves lets us change the outcome that is mapped out for us without our consent. Be fearless not fearful.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt