Chronicles of Courage: Why Knowledge Is Power With BRCA Testing
Fear is something I know a lot about. I learned about it as a 10-year-old when my mother died of breast cancer. I didn't understand what cancer or death really meant. One was a word I only knew to mean sick, the other a dark resting place where people go to sleep forever. As a kid, I wondered if cancer was something I could catch like a cold. Every time I had a small virus or a cough, I was petrified I might suddenly disappear.
I learned that while you can't "catch" cancer, I have what's called a cancer history, meaning there was a chance I might carry the BRCA gene mutation — something that greatly increases the likelihood of getting the disease.
After my college graduation, my doctor recommended I get tested for the mutation. My mom was in her early 40s when she was diagnosed, making me a "great candidate" for the screening and for insurance to cover it. At the time all I wanted to be a great candidate for was a job or a room for rent in my first Brooklyn apartment. Testing positive would come with a very ominous suggestion — that I have both breasts and ovaries removed before my 30th birthday to prevent myself from getting cancer.
I inherited a lot from my mom, I remember thinking. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a younger version of her that I only knew from photographs. It had been 12 years since her death and while I didn't have many memories of her, the ones I had were vivid. I remember the calm I felt when she would brush my hair after a shower and how she made me feel safe and loved when she would sing me to sleep.
My mother used to tell me that she loved me not just because I was her daughter, but because of my kindness and who I was as a person. She taught me the importance of loving and accepting myself, even at an age when the thought of being afraid of who I was, was beyond comprehension.
The fearful child in me didn't want to know if I had the gene. The part of my mother that lives in me knew getting the test was the right decision and that no matter the outcome, I would still be beautiful and strong, not because of my body and my genes, but because of who I was as a person.
I got tested and was extremely relieved to hear I did not have the BRCA gene mutation. Although even had I tested positive I would have gone through with the surgery to keep myself healthy. There's still a chance I might get cancer, simply because I'm alive. Everything from breathing city air to sitting at a desk all day could cause cancer, according to studies that come out on the subject almost every day. I'm 30 years old now and just had my first mammogram. Thankfully, it was normal - but I'll keep getting screened.
I still get scared about the future sometimes, but I know that my cancer history doesn't define me. It empowers me to check in with myself and my body and to live the healthiest most meaningful life possible. No matter what happens, my mom's unconditional love is very much alive in me. That love has allowed me to overcome many of my fears, not just about my health, but also when it comes to pursuing my dreams.
LIVESTRONG'S Chronicles of Courage series has partnered with Athleta for Breast Cancer Awareness month to profile and share the stories of five women's experiences. For every bra purchased, Athleta will donate an Empower bra to UCSF HDFCC. Valid Oct 2-15. Maximum donation of 2500 bras.