I was 25 when my oldest sister, Sherry, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 35. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach. I remember crying a lot. I remember hysterically scrubbing my whole house from top to bottom that week (a weird coping mechanism I guess), and then I remember bursting into uncontrollable sobs in church the next day. I was scared for Sherry, and in complete disbelief. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, what it meant for Sherry. What it meant for our family.
And somewhere in the back of my mind was a thought I didn’t want to let surface because I felt guilty for thinking about myself at all. I wondered if I could get breast cancer too.
For most of Sherry’s treatment, I lived in another state. I could only hear by phone how difficult her surgeries were, how awful chemo was, and how her hair was falling out. I felt helpless living so far away. I wanted to be there to bring her family meals, take her boys out, clean her house, and drop by with presents to cheer her up. I wished I could help. We lived near her during the year following chemo, and I watched her gracefully recover, live in hope, and grow her beautiful hair out again.
Fast forward a couple of years. Surgeries and chemo were in the past, and Sherry got tested for the BRCA gene mutation. She tested positive. We sisters all knew that we had a 50% chance of having the gene as well, so the rest of us were tested. Three of the four of us tested positive for the mutation.
I remember the day my results came back. My husband came home for lunch, and I told him what my genetic counselor had said just minutes before- I was positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, and I also had another unknown mutation on the BRCA2 gene. Then I burst into tears.
I was surprised at the extent of the emotion I felt about being told I was BRCA positive. With an 87% risk of getting breast cancer in my lifetime, I felt like I had essentially been diagnosed with cancer. I felt like my world was turned upside down. I went through a grieving process- I cried, I got angry, I got sad for my 2 daughters (who also have a 50% chance of having the mutation), I cried some more, and finally, weeks later, I came to the point that I was ok… I had slowly accepted it.
I remember hearing about prophylactic surgery and thinking it sounded crazy. Why have major surgery when you don’t even have cancer? But now having the gene, I felt totally differently about it all. Surgery started to sound like a option. A good option.
During that time, my husband and I were in training to go to the Philippines as missionaries. When the BRCA gene came up, we began to explore our options medically. I knew that being BRCA positive meant that I would need to be screened every 6 months for breast cancer. But we weren’t sure we would live anywhere with that kind of care.
Putting a huge, life changing decision into one short sentence, after months of prayer, seeking counsel, and talking with specialists (who definitely recommended prophylactic measures), we decided to go ahead with prophylactic surgery. Because of the timeline we were shooting for regarding moving overseas, we started right away.
I had a 2 1/2 year old baby and a 3 year old when I had surgery. I was 29. I still remember the feeling before my first surgery- being so anxious that I wanted to jump off the bed and go running out the door, hospital gown and all. I still get shivers when I think about coming home after surgery in a painful blur. I will never forget looking down at my bandages, and later, my huge scars. I was definitely relieved to have that 87% risk gone. That was a huge blessing. But nothing can prepare you for not having any breasts. It’s traumatic, it’s weird. There were times I just cried.
I made it through the 8 months of surgery, expansions, and reconstruction. I have an amazing God who gave me strength and emotional healing. I have an amazing family and parents and lots of friends who surrounded us, helping us with meals and taking care of our kids. I have a fantastic husband who went above and beyond, loving me unconditionally through it all. I had some precious times playing on my bed with my girls as I healed, and going for walks outside as I gained strength again.
One of my other BRCA positive sisters also went ahead with prophylactic surgery around the same time I did. She was just a little bit ahead of me in the process, so we called each other often. It was amazing to have the support of my sisters – all of them- through all of this.
I was completely finished with the reconstructive process in March of 2009. I am incredibly grateful that it is all over, and I am really happy with the result. My breast cancer risk is now less than one percent.
Sometimes I still can’t believe that God would grant me the grace to allow me to know that I had this breast cancer risk. I have been given a tremendous gift, and I am forever grateful and so humbled. So many people (including my sister Sherry) have the mutation (or no mutation at all) and get breast cancer. And for some reason, I was able to have the information and the provision to do something about my own risk. All I can say is thank you Lord… thank you for allowing me to do this. Thank you for giving us strength. Thank you for your hand through it all.