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It had been on my to-do list long before Angelina Jolie made it "trendy." But when the actress wrote her piece in The New York Times on why she decided to get tested for the breast cancer gene (BRCA gene), and subsequently have a double mastectomy, it reminded me to make the appointment for the test myself.
My mother died when she was in her early 50s from breast cancer, and although my father had been tested for the gene (his mother died of breast cancer in her early 50s), details -- as details from fathers often are -- are hazy on whether or not my mother ever received the test. His story has changed a few times, and I don't want stories changing when cancer is involved.
Making the appointment and getting in for the test was much easier than I anticipated -- physically. I called my OBGYN's office, told the receptionist why I wanted to come in, and had an appointment within two weeks. Emotionally, it was slightly difficult. Scary. But at the same time, it was empowering. My mother was not a doctor person and never had mammograms -- and might still be here, should she have been. I felt like I was taking control of my health as much as I possibly could, and I was doing it for my sweet 14-month-old girl. (I won't leave you a moment earlier than I have to, love.)
Full disclosure, I felt kind of stupid walking into the midwife's office at the gynecologist. She had done my postpartum visit the previous year, and I knew she was an incredibly cool and compassionate woman, who would be a great person to talk to about getting the test. But something about running to the doctor right after Angelina Jolie did seemed silly. It felt like the medical equivalent of bringing in a photo of your favorite celebrity to the hair salon. But my desire to get the test done overrode that. It's one of the few times in my life I felt foolish, but genuinely and truly didn't care. I wanted answers. I wanted to stop wondering. I wanted to cross this off my to-do list.
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As it turned out, the midwife had the test herself years ago. Her mother also passed away from breast cancer, and carried the gene, actually. She, luckily, did not. She talked to me about odds and percentages (dozens of women had gotten the test at this office, she had never seen a positive). She talked to me about breast health (regardless, I should get a "baseline" exam). And we briefly discussed what I could do were I to be a carrier. (She would send me to a geneticist, who I could talk to about having my breasts and ovaries removed, should I want to. "You have all your babies. Monitor yourself. Then, boom, have your surgeries.")
One of the most interesting things I found out was that ovarian cancer was more the thing to worry about over breast cancer, should one test positive for the gene. The way the midwife explained it, breast cancer, for the most part, is now more or less treatable. Of course no one wants to get it, but if you practice self-exams and get routine mammograms, the odds of catching it early are high -- which makes the odds of effectively treating it high. Ovarian cancer, on the other hand, isn't quite as easy to detect. You obviously can't do self-exams, and by the time symptoms are noticeable, it's bad. She also said that getting your ovaries removed, which Jolie didn't do, is a relatively simple procedure. (So, maybe Angelina wants another baby? Heard it here first.)
After my consultation, I was led to a room, where my blood was drawn. Typically, I'm not in the habit of watching fluids being extracted from my body, but this time I watched. How could one little vial contain so many answers? Please, god, be a good vial. I was told I'd only have to wait two weeks until I received the results. (Note: When waiting for medical results of any kind, anything longer than "immediately" feels like an eternity.)
Truth be told, I was fairly confident I didn't carry the gene, which is uncommon for a hypochondriac like myself. The midwife made me feel relaxed about the whole thing, and although I felt slightly jumpy on my walk back to the subway, I didn't freak out during the two weeks. I wondered. But I didn't freak out.
As it turns out, I do not carry the gene. My blood work looked "awesome," according to the midwife, and I now have the same odds as the average woman for getting breast cancer. To say I'm relieved is an understatement; as is to say I'm proud I went through with this. Like I said, it had been on my to-do list for a while now, but it so often got pushed to the wayside because of less important things like household chores or trips to Target. Angelina Jolie gave me the push to go through with it -- as I assume was her intention. And I no longer feeling silly having done it "because she did". I feel like I can rest easier and read the word "cancer" now without breaking out into a low-grade panic attack. But mostly, I can look at my daughter and know that I'm doing everything in my power to be around as long as I can. And hopefully I'm teaching her to do the same.
Despite my mother not being "a doctor person," that doesn't mean she didn't love her children. And just because I went out and got this test doesn't mean I care for my daughter any more than she cared for her kids. She loved my sister and me immensely, and I never doubt that for a nanosecond. She was just scared. Like I was scared. And she didn't have the experience of watching her mother leave her -- my grandmother is still alive and well. That changes you. So, maybe, in some way, part of her passing was a gift to us. Something to teach us not to take our health for granted. I don't know. That's the silver lining I'm choosing to believe. And I think she would like that.
Have you had the breast cancer gene test?
Image via williami5/Flickr