Monday, August 8th, 2011
Unfortunately I’ve had breast cancer on my mind in a big way this summer. My mom is an 11-year survivor, having been diagnosed at age 47, which is why my gynecologist has been gently pushing me for the past two years to get tested for the breast cancer (BRCA) gene. But then it became clear that it’s really my mother who should be tested for the gene; if she had it, then my three sisters and I definitely would also get the test. For whatever reason, we were all–minus my doctor–taken aback when my mother’s results came back positive. She has the BRCA2 gene (there is also a BRCA1 gene).
You may ask what a lot of people have asked: But what does that mean? It means that her chances of a breast cancer recurrence go up dramatically, as does her risk of developing ovarian cancer. It means that decisions need to be made about how to help prevent a diagnosis, whether through vigilant screening or surgery to remove the risky body parts. It means each of her four daughters have a 50 percent chance of also having the gene.
So we’ve all started the testing process. I don’t have the gene. Neither does my younger sister. Another sister is waiting until the fall to get tested. But my other sister just learned that she does have the gene, and even though she lives in California and we only see each other a few times each year, we happened to have been together when she got the call. I won’t get into details about what that was like, but to say it was painful is an understatement. And now my sister, who is 32 and hasn’t yet had children, is faced with all kinds of big questions about what she should do with this information.
Meanwhile, a childhood friend was diagnosed with breast cancer last month. A mother of three, she will have a double mastectomy this week–she has since learned that she, too, is a carrier of the BRCA gene–and then begin 16 weeks of chemo. And we still have the results of my third sister’s test to get through… not to mention those of my mom’s sister and brothers (yes, men need to be tested too, as their risk of both breast and prostate cancer jumps if they have the gene).
Then there’s the matter of my job. I’m a health editor for a magazine for women and we’re currently producing our October issue. In other words, there’s no shortage of breast cancer-related information swirling around. I think back to a conversation I had earlier this summer with Susan Love, M.D., the president and medical director of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. It was an honor to speak with her; Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book was what everyone in my family consulted when my mom was diagnosed. Hearing her say things like, “We can be the generation that stops breast cancer” was not just inspiring–it was reassuring, coming from someone with her knowledge.
Dr. Love has a mission to discover the cause of breast cancer. And to that end, she’s joined with the Avon Foundation for Women to create an Army of Women. The goal is to recruit 1 million women–those with a connection to breast cancer and those without–who will participate in research that will eventually eradicate the disease. To join the Army, you simply provide some basic information and then wait to be contacted about studies you can participate in. When you’re contacted, you either join the study or not–your call–and you’ll hopefully tell a friend about it so that she may consider joining. I’ve joined the Army and it just feels good to know I’m doing something about this disease that seems to hang over so many of us. If you, too, feel powerless in the face of breast cancer, maybe this is the cause for you. In addition to their web site, you can find the Army of Women on Facebook.