I have a tendency to wear my heart on my digital sleeve. It’s a problem to an extent, I’m aware, and I’m trying to stop it because #Adulthood and such. But blah blah Millennial blah blah blah.
That’s not the point right here, but rather a preface, because I’m about to drag out some pretty heavy shit on this here blog of mine (read that last part with a WashCo accent). But it’s some heavy decision-making that I need to work out with myself, and the only way for me to work it out for myself is to force my over-thinking and over-analyzation on everyone around me. (Sidebar: Spellcheck says “-analyzation” is not a word. I disagree. Spellcheck also says “spellcheck” is not a word, so shows how self-aware Microsoft is.)
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the tail end of 2004. She had a lumpectomy on Feb.17, 2005 and underwent chemotherapy and radiation throughout the entire summer. It was harrowing and terrifying, and that’s just from my perspective – she is the strongest woman I know. She has been cancer-free since then.
She had just turned 42 at the time. It was her first mammogram.
Her mother had cancer. Her sister had cancer. Breast and ovarian cancer trail through my lineage, making heartbreaking and terrifying stops along the way. I am aware of what this means for me, though I feel as though I’m diminishing their stories by making this about me. It’s something I can’t ignore though, because science won’t let me.
The average risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer as a woman in the United States is just about one in eight. For those of us with a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed, the risk doubles. The farther under age 50 that first-degree relative was when they were diagnosed, the more the risk doubles.
Forty-two. Forty-two, by scientific standards, is young. The risk that a woman will develop cancer between age 40 and 50 is 1.47 percent.
I know these statistics by heart. I know when studies indicate changes. And I know my own risk, and I know that it’s high.
What I don’t know are my genes.
We’re all aware of the BRCA 1 and 2 mutations, and if you aren’t, well, you know how to Google. I do not know if my mother carries this gene. Only about 10 percent of women who develop breast cancer carry either of them.
I also don’t know if I carry one. Or both.
Women who carry the BRCA1 mutation have a 50 to 70 percent chance of developing cancer by age 70. BRCA2, a 40 to 60 percent chance. Some of you are journalists, so let put numbers in perspective.
If you gather up 100 women with BRCA1/2, between 40 and 70 will be diagnosed with breast cancer by age 70.
My odds are not good if I do not carry one or both of the gene mutations. I don’t want to calculate my odds if I do have the mutation.
Which brings me to the Heavy Shit I said I was going to trot out: Do I want to know? And do I want to know now?
Do I want, at age 24, to possibly be faced with the knowledge that there’s a really friggin’ good chance I develop cancer at some point? I’m aware that I very well may not carry these mutations. That, of course, would be a small peace of mind for me, though my risk remains high, and it’s been recommended – close to demanded – by medical professionals that I begin getting mammograms by age 30. That’s 20 years before it’s recommended the average woman start.
(Sidebar2: I’m really sorry we’re sitting here discussing my chest. Really, I am. I know it’s kind of weird. But it’s been kind of hindering my peace of mind for about a decade and has the potential to play a really big role in my quality of life in the future.)
I want to know. But I don’t. Because the decision that could come with that knowledge, depending on the test outcome, is really god damn big. What do I do if they tell me yes, I do carry this mutation? I legitimately do not think that’s a decision I could make right now. I can barely decide which route to take when I run, which shoes to put on in the morning, which brand of pasta to buy.
At first glance, the obvious answer is “yes!” Why wouldn’t you be proactive, find out and take preventative steps? But think about the implications if I do have these broken genes running through me.
Think about the decisions that come after that.
Not just “What do I do?” but “When do I do it?” I’m twentygoddamnfour.
Do you really want to know the odds if they’re already that stacked against you? (Edit: Holy hell. Absolutely no pun intended.)