Remember how everyone kind of freaked out some years ago when Angelina Jolie had a preventative double mastectomy at the age of 37 due to her cancer risk? It seemed like everyone had an opinion on her personal healthcare choice.
Eventually, Angelina’s surgery brought on further awareness of genetic testing for cancer, and her fame and popularity helped educate and empower women on informed preventative health decisions.
But what’s it like to make such a difficult choice? I can offer some insight – I’m a 31 year old wife, mom, daughter teacher, blogger, and friend, and I’m currently planning a double mastectomy.
How it Started
When I was in college, I took an honours political science course on the history of breast cancer and its social, emotional, and political impacts on women. It was a small class – just a dozen or so students of various majors who gathered in a conference room with spinny chairs twice a week. I took the class because I was genuinely interested in the content, I loved small classes, and I needed a poli sci course for my degree.
It turns out the class might have saved my life. We read so many diverse perspectives on breast cancer and studied how treatment has evolved over time. I knew my aunt had had a very difficult fight with breast cancer, and I knew my grandfather had prostate cancer, but I didn’t really make a connection to myself at first.
Starting to Take Control
Over the next few years, as my husband and I struggled with infertility and miscarriages, I learned I had to advocate for my health. I learned through my experiences to ask lots of questions and to do my own research so I could be an informed patient. I started questioning my OBGYN at age 25 about mammograms. My concerns were often dismissed – but eventually, my doctor finally asked why I constantly asked about it. I explained my knowledge of cancer genetics and my own family risks, and he finally agreed that seeing a genetic counsellor would be a logical plan. So my appointment was made. The genetic counsellor praised me for my tenacity and determination, and after a thorough review of my family tree – she sent off the test.
It came back positive for BRCA2.
Shortly after I got my results, my dad actually got tested as well – it was his sister who had breast cancer and his dad who died from prostate cancer – and his was positive too. My dad’s positive test has perhaps extended his life by many years. He now gets frequent prostate checks and sees his oncologist twice as often as he used to. He’s already battled Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and his doctors are always on alert. For me, I now have a breast MRI every six months.
Making The Big Decision
Once I had the results, I had to decide what I wanted to do next. I planned on just frequent monitoring. Then, last summer during my yearly exam, my same OBGYN found a mass in my left breast. His entire demeanour changed. I could tell he was worried, and I was immediately sent for follow up scans. Not long after, I had the mass removed and gratefully, it wasn’t cancer. But the entire experience showed me that maybe just doing the early monitoring isn’t the right choice for me.
After lots of serious talks with my breast surgeon, we agreed on a prophylactic mastectomy – planned to happen before I turn 35. Since then, I’ve made peace with my decision to go ahead with the surgery – even though I know it will be an emotional and physically demanding experience. I don’t want to live my life in fear of every lump, bump, and pain I feel in my breasts. I don’t want my family worried about living life without me. I plan on being around for my kids, my husband, and even future grandkids. I look forward to continuing my career, accomplishing my goals, and fully enjoying my senior years. I’m not going to wait around for cancer to kick me, I’m kicking it first. Angelina has shared numerous occasions how she felt no less feminine after her surgery. I learned the same lesson after years of infertility and multiple miscarriages. I became a mother through adoption – and my womanhood has not been defined by that experience. Likewise, my identity is not defined by my breasts or by cancer. I find my identity in my faith, my family, my hopes and dreams, and my accomplishments.
If I can offer any advice, it is to be the boss of your health. Just as you take charge of your own career, you can take charge and advocate for your health by being informed, proactive, and thorough. It just might save your life.