I have had many defining moments in my life, moments that would change the way that I looked at the world and my place in it. As you might expect, an early one was the birth of my first child. I went on to have 5 more children and each one of them changed me in ways that I never could have predicted. As I have gotten older, these defining moments have changed from births to life challenges and death.
This story about me actually begins with my younger sister. She is a beautiful creative soul who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38. Her story is an amazing one but I will let you read her words for that. She wrote a book called 167 Days A Journey Through Breast Cancer. I don’t want to make her story about me, it is about her but we were both touched by it. I cannot tell you how devastated I was to learn that she was facing this disease. This is one of those moments, to have a sibling diagnosed with cancer changes you. It changed me. So many things that seemed crucial once just didn’t matter anymore. My thoughts kept returning to her struggles, her life, and the fact that I wasn’t in a position to help her. So many things that seemed to matter when we were younger just didn’t matter anymore. I couldn’t bear the thought that I might lose her.
During her treatment, they discovered that she was “BRCA1 Positive” and recommended that family members get tested. I had a 50% chance of having the same genetic mutation that she did. Those that are BRCA1 positive have an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and a 44% chance of developing ovarian cancer by the time they turn 70.
I went forward with the testing and found out that I was also BRCA1 Positive. The recommended course of action was to have a complete hysterectomy and a bi-lateral mastectomy either with or without the reconstructive surgeries. Grueling, yes, but I am the lucky one. I did not have to go through chemotherapy or radiation and I didn’t have to confront the chance that I might die. I realize that no one really knows when they are going to die but when you have a cancer diagnosis you are staring down the barrel of a shotgun aimed right at your face and you are trying to figure out how to outsmart the lunatic holding the gun.
The numbers were certainly not in my favor so I quickly decided to proceed with the surgeries. I had my first surgery, the hysterectomy, on May 18th of 2012. Again, I was lucky in that this surgery did not take too long to recover from. This is a surgery that can be very difficult and it can take a long time to fully recover. The challenges of surgical menopause are still with me though. I can tell you that the term “hot flashes” does not come close to describing them. It is more like a furnace is suddenly lit inside of you and you are literally burning up. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they would hit when I am outside during our lovely Minnesota winter. I could use warming up then. What actually happens is that I settle in to bed and am nearly asleep when one hits. I uncover my feet and arms and let the cold air hit until it passes. Then I cover back up again and try to get comfortable. I am now wide awake. This can happen several times during the night until it is time to get up and go in the morning. I wouldn’t have done this differently though. I did not have to go through chemo or radiation. I didn’t have to tell my children that I had cancer or to plan for what to do when I was gone. I am very lucky. I found out my risk ahead of time. Know your risk.
For more information about knowing your risk for breast cancer go to the FORCE website.
In part two, I will talk about the mastectomy, reconstructions, and what I have learned about myself through all of this.