My mother battled breast cancer until the age of 47, and for most of my teenage life I remember every few years having to process the change that came with being excited to be “in remission” only to be surprised that it recurred somewhere else.
The definition of a warrior, her near impossible battle with breast cancer spanned over 13 years of her adult life and consisted of many setbacks and miraculous breakthroughs. She passed away in the summer of 2019, hanging on long enough to see her two eldest children graduate college a few years earlier, and passing away on the last day of middle school for her youngest.
A month after she passed, I finally decided to get genetic tests completed to determine my risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I can’t forget the day I received my results. I was at work looking at the Chicago river and my genetic counselor called me and told me I was positive for the BRCA-2 gene mutation. I left work, called my closest aunt and cried. This was the same gene mutation that my mother eventually succumbed to, but I wasn’t quite ready to face the music. Through muffled cries, my aunt helped me to realize that my results were knowledge for me to make better decisions.
Women diagnosed with a faulty gene mutation of BRCA-1 or BRCA-2, have an increased risk of contracting breast and ovarian cancer. My lifetime risk of contracting breast cancer with a BRCA-2 gene mutation was estimated at its highest at 87%, with a 27% risk of ovarian cancer.
My mother didn’t know about her BRCA-2 mutation until it was too late. When her oncologist inquired further and requested a test, she had already been battling cancer for 10 years and had other battles to fight.
Knowing my reality, I made the decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. Priority was with that, as my risk was higher with my breasts as compared to ovarian cancer. After lots of research and consultations, I found solace with Dr. Khouri and Dr. Calva-Cerqueira at the Miami Breast Center and Dr. Patel, Plastic Surgery Clinic of Chicago. I can not stress the importance of speaking to multiple medical professionals, getting second opinions and trusting your gut.
I am writing about my experience because I hope that it encourages other women to get tested, and to find courage in their own diagnoses. Thankfully, in today’s time (with access to healthcare and information), it is easier to determine one’s risk and profile based on family history and genetic testing.
My own process began in March, with stage 1 of my mastectomy. This stage was a nipple-sparing procedure, consisting of removing all breast tissue and having temporary expanders for 3–4 months for the next stage of surgery. The operation can take about eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It’s an awful and painful experience. But within 2 weeks, you can return back to a (somewhat) normal life.
The second stage, which I completed this summer, is when breast reconstruction is done through fat transfer from the stomach and thighs. I chose this process because I wanted to avoid implants and the many issues that come with implants/foreign objects in ones’ body over time. The recovery process is a little bit easier, but still painful nonetheless.
Undergoing a mastectomy and reconstruction challenged (and continues to) my beliefs about myself as a woman and my femininity. I had difficulty adjusting to my new body and relearning what love was to myself and others during the transition period. I’m finally sharing my story in hopes of encouraging other women to get tested and use their results as a source of information and courage, not fear.
I’m writing this so other women, like me, can be armed with information. Especially Black women, when diagnosed with breast cancer, have a 42% higher mortality rate than white women. The statistics are grimacing for us, where Black women are much more likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which can be more aggressive, harder to treat, and more likely to come back (recur).
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women both in the developed and less developed world. It must be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, ranging $475 to $4,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.
Challenges are the gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.