So if you haven’t heard, Angelina got her knockers taken off in order to decrease her odds of contracting the big C. While most people are praising her for the decision she’s made, others are wondering if it’s a step they should be taking as well. So before you rush off to maim your mammaries, I want to give you a little insight.
All cancer cells are genetic, which means we are all born with the capacity of our cells to mutate and become cancerous. However, with all of the research, funding, tests on lab rats, and races for the cure – there is only ONE test available to see if your cancer is hereditary. The BRCA (pronounced baraka) test tests for only one specific cancer gene linked to a type of breast, ovarian, colon and pancreatic cancer. Only 5% of those with these cancers are positive for the BRCA Cancer gene, thus have the capacity to pass it on to their children.
The testing is done in only one place, somewhere in Utah. The first round of testing costs about $3,000, and in most cases is covered by insurance. I say the ‘first round of testing’ because there are three various results that can come from the initial test – positive, false positive, or negative. Seriously. There is a second and third round of testing that can be done in order to provide the most accurate result – either true positive or true negative, but costs an additional $700-$800 each and is most likely not covered by insurance. To prepare for the testing, you must provide family medical history back to your grandparents siblings (if they had cancer, if so what kind and at what age, what did they die from and at what age, etc). Then they draw blood, and you play the waiting game, once again.
Most women do the testing if they’ve already proven positive for cancer in one breast, or another gene related organ, in order to determine if they should be aggressive and proactive in any other treatment. In Angelina’s case, her mother died of ovarian cancer at a fairly young age, so she was moved to find out if she had the gene before it would have the chance to mutate. I mean, she’s already got her litter, so her boobs really have no other purpose (sorry Brad). What more could she need them for? By having a double mastectomy her chances of getting breast cancer have gone from over 85% to less than 5%. Now if she decides to have a hysterectomy, her odds will be less than 2%. Crazy right?
In my case? I found my tumors, their cancer, and the fact that they had already spread to my lymph nodes on my own. I chose to have my double mastectomy before I had MRIs, a PetScan or was even tested for the cancer gene. I have two beautiful girls. I want to be around for them, the same concept that Angelina had. I wanted however to do the genetic testing, not for me, but for my daughters. You see, if I am positive, their insurance would most likely start covering mammograms for them at 20. Can you imagine that?
When I sat down with my genetic counselor, she looked at my family history (beforehand I would have thought that the majority of cancer came from my mom’s side, but it was my dad’s that proved more compelling) and the red dots were prominent throughout my entire family. Great aunts and uncles, grandparents, an aunt, second cousins – some still living but most deceased. The doctor says, ‘This is a prime example of a cancer that is most likely hereditary.’ So I have to sit on that statement for a week until we receive the results, all the while imagining my girls scheduling their mammograms in between their junior year finals at college. But a week later, the doc calls. She’s dumb-founded. I’m negative. She can’t explain it. Once again, I’ve lost faith in the medical industry. Completely at a loss for words, I tell her that since I’m going through with the double mastectomy anyways, there’s no point in more tests. She, hearing my frustration, asks if she can do the second and third test on her own. I give her permission, as long as she shares the results with me. But in the end, I’m a true negative. That’s right. Negative. Cancer on my family tree like chicken pox on a toddler, and still I’m negative. She confides that there is still so much unknown. Environment? Nope. My family is in Louisiana, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, Virginia and more. The cancer is not just in women but in the men too.
So what does it do? Well, for one it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve given a death sentence to my daughters. On the other hand, it proves that after all of the pink ribbons and races they still can’t tell me how or why I have developed cancer, and an aggressive one at that. In the end, it’s all about knowing your bodies. Which is why I want to discuss men. We as women are taught to see a GYN the moment we either hit puberty or young womanhood and continue to do so annually. It’s also a part of our nature to talk, about everything. When I worked on my genetic history and confided to the doctor how I hadn’t known about my father’s side, she said it’s extremely common. Men just don’t talk, and it’s not in their make up to want to know. But not knowing is the worst decision that can be made. Denial and ignorance do nothing to prevent cancer.
Angelina Jolie made her decision for a multitude of reasons. She’s had her kids. She wants to be around for them. But there are women who have made this same decision in their twenties even before having kids, simply because the alternative is too daunting. Women who choose to remove their ‘good’ breast(s) do so having fully reconciled to the fact that they would rather live than have the chance of being told, ‘I’ve got bad news to tell you.’ There are women who decide to just do a lumpectomy and take their chances. Having a mastectomy doesn’t make you less of a woman, neither does a hysterectomy or even both for that matter, nor does a lumpectomy. What it does mean is that you are brave enough to have made any decision at all. All of these decisions are right for each person because each person is different, each with their own list of scenarios and circumstances. What matters most is that you guard yourself with as much information as you can so that when you do make a decision, it’s one that you and your breasts can live with.