Cancer has always been a familiar word, growing more familiar over time. At times, cancer’s voice would be placed in a back closet, small and dark. As I’ve gotten older, the voice has become more defined and personal as it attempted to overtake my family.
My paternal grandfather died of melanoma skin cancer before I was born. My father, a young adult, was devastated. Growing up, beach vacations and pool parties were kicked off with a thorough shower in SPF 90. Coming out of the water, our frantic father would beckon us to the umbrella “safety zone”, worriedly pressing his finger on our shoulders testing the power of the sun, armed and ready with more suntan lotion, hats and long sleeve shirts.
When I was four years old, my mother’s middle sister had her first encounter with cancer at the unfair age of 28. Cancer would return a total of six times, spreading across her organs like a swath of locusts, unrelenting weeds trying so hard to destroy her positive attitude and, ultimately, her ability to fight and win. When I was eighteen, my mother found a lump in her breast, which was successfully eradicated with surgery and radiation. Not to be left out, my mother’s youngest sister was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years later along with their cousin.
What struck me about these women was their attitude in response to cancer, the “I’ll take that a$$hole down” mentality that was instated from the start. Their battles were fought with their positive spirits, teaching me the power of the mind. Just when our family wanted to scream and cry at the unfairness, they calmly responded, “Cancer might be a six letter word, but so is strong.” The fire remained within me, the warrior mentality that was just as fierce. Little did I know that I soon would be facing my own battles.
At 22, I learned I had inherited the breast and ovarian cancer mutation gene, BRAC, along with my mother and sister. Despite my perfect health, I spent the next 8 years going to frequent doctor appointments, getting poked, prodded and pressed by mammograms, MRI machines, ultrasounds and blood tests. Shortly after my 29th birthday, my oncologist discovered a growing amount of cysts in my breasts. Combined with the knowledge that BRAC increased my chances of getting breast and / or ovarian cancer to 90%, the ticking time bombs on my chest had to go. I elected to undergo a bilateral prophylactic double mastectomy just before my 30th birthday.
After surgery, I woke up to the feeling of a sumo wrestler sitting on my chest; seemingly simple actions like sneezing, laughing & closing an umbrella were ridiculously painful. Everything from my physical being to my ego hurt. Somewhere between the weekly hospital visits and second surgery, I learned to embrace my ever-changing body. Shelling out rock-hard hugs or forcing someone's hand to my chest to feel the expanders was all too frequent.
There are times when I feel isolated in my decision, frustrated when dresses and tank tops show the scars under my armpits, sad that I’ll never get the opportunity to breastfeed, annoyed when my chest turns bright red after five minutes in the sun from the lack of sensory nerves, embarrassed that I have to drop the C-bomb so early in a romantic relationship.
Modern medicine provided me with insight and choice, and for this, I feel very blessed. I had alternatives that other family members did not have. The scars are omnipresent, a constant affirmation of making a decision that, while it may have been too radical for some, was right for me. I’ve been told I’m brave for having undergone the double mastectomy surgery. But for me, the surgery was never a choice, but rather the only option for taking down cancer.
The brilliant author and frequent TED speaker Andrew Solomon wrote, “We say that our struggles have ennobled us, but we don't know who we would have been without them. We might have been equally wonderful; our best qualities might be inherent rather than circumstantial.”