“Why I Surgically Removed My Breasts to Avoid My Legacy” – I am currently a 31 year old woman with two beautiful daughters and very happy to be living my life. My vision of my world wasn’t always so rosy. I grew up with a dark cloud hanging over my head. The big “C” word took the life of my grandmother and threatened the lives of my two aunts and my mother. If it happened to them, what was to stop cancer from striking me as well? I was born with a predisposition to this disease and the thought of dying plagued me constantly. When I realized that there were ways to defy my destiny…I did just that. No one and no disease was going to stop me.
When I was 18, my mother suffered from her first bout of breast cancer. She had a lump in one breast and had to have a partial mastectomy following reconstruction with skin tissue and muscle taken from her stomach. The reconstruction process for her was grueling and though results were good she wished she would have had both breasts removed at the same time.
She survived numerous rounds of chemo and radiation treatments. I watched her shave her head when her hair started to fall out. I helped her bathe when she was too weak to do it herself. I measured her drainage tubes to make sure the fluid output was sufficient for proper healing. When she had cravings for scrambled eggs in the middle of the night, I got out of my bed and made them for her. I was happy to help. It’s what you do for family! I remember thinking to myself that if I have kids I hope they never have to do this for me.
Five years later, her cancer came back. She was afflicted with it in her other breast this time. She decided to have a full mastectomy on the affected breast and avoided reconstruction altogether, choosing instead to wear a prosthesis. After being told by her Oncology team that her cancer was gone, she was released from their care and tried to live life.
I graduated from college, got married to my high school sweetheart and gave birth to two wonderful girls but throughout my life, that dark cloud was still there. The older I got, the more scared I got. My grandmother was in her 50’s when cancer struck her and my mother was in her 40’s when hers came. As I approached my 30’s I wondered what was in store for me. I had heard that there was a genetic test that could be taken to see if you carried the mutated gene that predisposed you to breast and ovarian cancer. It became clear to me that I had to take this test.
Out of concern that the insurance company might deny my request (it is quite expensive) my mom took the test first. If her result was to come back positive, I would then have a 50% chance of having the gene. If her result was negative, I would have no chance of acquiring the gene from her. She had the test done and it came back with a positive showing of the BRCA 2 gene mutation. I now knew that I had to take the test too. I had a 50-50 chance and frankly, I didn’t like those odds one bit.
In March of 2008, I saw a genetic counselor who deals with patients wanting to take this test. She discussed my odds, my possible reaction to my result, what it would mean for my children if I had a positive result. I barely listened to her, my mind was made. She took my blood and said that she would contact me once the results were in from the lab.
After two very long weeks, I got the phone call to see her again. The day that I walked into her office to get my results, I was more nervous than I was when I gave birth. My test came back positive for the BRCA 2 gene mutation…same as my mom’s. The world seemed to stop spinning for a moment. I had COMPLETELY prepared myself for this outcome but hearing the statistics seemed to drive the stake in that much harder.
My future now held an 87% chance of breast cancer by the age of 70 and a 27% chance of ovarian cancer. Not only did this gene mutation predispose me to cancer, I knew my two daughters would have a 50-50 chance of having this gene too. My poor girls! When my ears stopped ringing I realized that the counselor was discussing my options for dealing with this positive result. I could take anti-cancer drugs like Tamoxifen or be hypervigilent with routine mammograms and self-breast exams. The last option, and the only one I even remotely considered was a Prophylactic Double Mastectomy. I could radically remove my breasts and virtually bring my odds of cancer down to around 3%. I ended our conversation with “Where do I sign up?”
After treating myself to a brownie sundae at Baskin Robbins I made up my mind to jump on this. I was 29 and 30 was right around the corner. I wanted to start the next decade of my life with a new perspective and a chance to see a clear blue sky with no worries about cancer. I immediately started to look for doctors. My process would include a general surgeon doing a Radical Mastectomy (meaning all breast tissue is removed) and a plastic surgeon inserting tissue expanders (these expanders are bags that are placed behind the chest muscle and are filled with saline to stretch the skin to allow for future silicone implants).
The surgery was scheduled for October 1, 2008. It was the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness month. I thought it was very appropriate. With my kids being taken care of, meal support set up and plenty of button-up-the-front pajamas, I was ready to go. October 1, 2008 was the day my life changed forever.
When I woke from surgery my first thought was “Damn this hurts!” and then I experienced a sense of relief that I hadn’t had since my children took their first breath. My once dreary future now seemed filled with hope. I was in a lot of pain but was extremely happy!
After having a double mastectomy, tissue expanders, implant surgery, nipple tattooing and finally a hysterectomy, I am happy and whole. I have learned what strength and endurance really is. I have learned patience and perseverance. I have met incredible doctors, nurses and others who have taken me under their wing. I have found friends across the world. I have found life.