Jennifer: The shock of a breast cancer diagnosis while waiting for her BRCA test results

Jennifer is married and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and young daughter. Since this was written, Jennifer has completed her mastectomy surgery. She has had a difficult time healing having contracted an infection which resulted in her being hospitalized. She is recovering nicely now and continuing with her treatment. 

Written by Jennifer Ward Mitchell

When my physician recommended genetics testing eight years ago to determine if I would be predisposed to breast cancer (all of my female lineage had been treated for the disease), I didn’t understand how knowing this information would benefit me.  Back then, terms like BRCA and prophylactic bilateral mastectomies weren’t used routinely. Therefore, I thought all the testing would tell me is whether or not I would have to sit around and wait for the disease to kill me. I didn’t understand there were preventative options that could have made the testing useful so I opted out. Now fast forward to last Fall…

While being treated for melanoma, a conversation spawned about the overwhelming risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer in people with genetic mutations versus the risk to general population but more importantly, what could be done about it.  When risk-factor statistics along with options for reducing those risks are presented together, the choice for having genetics testing became a no-brainer. So,  I made the earliest genetics counseling appointment they had…9 months later.  If I had the BRCA gene, I was fully committed to reducing my risk by surgically removing my breasts and ovaries.

While waiting for the genetics appointment to occur, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast.  Thankfully my tumor was too large so I had to proceed with chemo before surgery so it gave me time to have the genetic testing completed.  This information held the key to the surgical path I chose.  Not to my surprise, I carried the genetic mutation.

The bad news that came along with positive test results was that I had a 50% chance that I would develop another tumor in either breast if they remained on my body. Also with near certainty, I would develop ovarian cancer in my lifetime unless I took action there too.  The worse news is that have to wait 10 years to find out if I have passed on the worst of the worst trait to my little girl.

What I was surprised to find was the peace of mind this information provided.   There has been no flip-flopping from one choice to another or doubt that I am making the right choice.  The boobs must come off and the ovaries must come out.  I also stopped second-guessing why I developed breast cancer – was it because I lived near power lines, ate too much candy or didn’t buy organic foods?  Nope.  It was because I was destined for it to happen.

I have my bilateral mastectomy scheduled for next Wednesday and my ovaries will be removed in November.  With chemo now one week behind me, I find myself welling up at odd times as the reality finally sinks in – for example, when the breeze made me a little chilly yesterday and I was reminded my nipples won’t be there next week to react to the cold.

The impacts to my family are getting me choked up too.  My poor husband has to deal with the sex drive of a person in their 80’s despite being in our 30’s.  We thought pre-menopause from the chemo was going to be only temporary but having my ovaries removed will make me menopausal…forever.  There was no “easing into it” so we will just have to make the best of it with what we know now.  And, I had to show my little girl pictures of what the drains protruding from my body would look like so she wouldn’t freak out when she saw them next week.  No child should have to see these things but she will.

Having the BRCA1 gene mutation wouldn’t be my choice in life but there isn’t anything I can do about it.  I am going to make the best of it and keep loving myself when I look in the mirror.  People have always loved me for my kindness, humor, generosity and a ton of other things.  I don’t recall someone ever loving me because I had wonderful boobs and the ability to reproduce so I should be OK in the long run.

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