What would you do if you knew you were going to get cancer?

What would you do if you knew you were going to get cancer? You don’t have it, yet—but it’s coming for you! Could be in twenty years; could be in ten. Could be in fifty years; could be in six months.

That was my situation. After my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in September of 2011, she was tested for genetic mutations of the BRCA genes, a class of tumor suppressors that work with reproductive tissue. She tested positive for the BRCA2 gene, which is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. As all good students who were awake for at least one Biology lecture should know, genes are passed down through parent to child. There was a 50% chance I had inherited the same BRCA2 gene mutation.

Even before I made the decision to be tested for the mutation, I knew there was a higher likelihood that I would be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in my life. My mother was diagnosed for the first time at a relatively young age, which made me more susceptible. Since my outlook was already somewhat pessimistic, being tested for the BRCA2 mutation wouldn’t change much.

I waited almost two weeks for the results of the blood test and finally heard back on October 25th, 2011. Yes, the results were positive: I had inherited the same mutation as my mom. I was not surprised by the news but that doesn’t mean I was not upset, either. The numbers are pretty daunting:

  • The BRCA2 mutation means I have a 56-87% chance of developing breast cancer by age 70
  • It also means I have a 27-44% chance of developing ovarian cancer by age 70
  • I have a slightly increased chance of developing other cancers, such as pancreatic and stomach
  • I have a 50% chance of passing this genetic mutation onto my children

So pretty much, I realized I was going to get breast cancer…that’s how the numbers played out, and my mom’s history of breast cancer confirmed those numbers. Yep, I was pissed. For a few days there I felt like nothing in life was “important” anymore, that school and work didn’t matter because I had much bigger issues to deal with and I couldn’t possibly be bothered by the mundane, menial tasks of everyday life!

Right, clearly that’s a stupid attitude. After moping around a bit I realized I needed to get over myself and stop acting like a little drama queen. I needed to take action!

My options were as follows:

1. Do nothing now. Start routine mammograms around age 40. Hope that there aren’t any cancerous cells lurking in my body.

2. Begin yearly MRIs and mammograms at age 25, which would (most likely) catch any cancer early, making it easier to treat.

3. Opt for a prophylactic mastectomy to remove all of my breast tissue, dramatically reducing my chance of getting breast cancer

Well, you guys all know what I picked! A prophylactic mastectomy. It seems so drastic, I know, but it’s the only active route. Why would I wait for cancer to strike me when I could kick its ass right now? Although the yearly MRI and mammogram option is a smart one, I believe that it’s too passive because I would just be waiting for a cancerous lump to appear. When that lump did appear, I would end having a double mastectomy anyway, in addition to chemotherapy and radiation.

By opting for the prophylactic mastectomy, I’ve essentially lowered my risk of breast cancer to almost 0%. And there are more bonuses: I won’t have to go through chemo or radiation; I won’t have to put my career on hold; I won’t have to explain to my kids why I’m bald; I can pick the best time and place for me to have surgery; I’m still covered by my parents’ insurance; and most importantly, my mommy will be there to take care of me after!

My surgery was on March 13th, at Ronald Reagan Hospital at the UCLA Medical Center. I know, I know, I’m a USC traitor—but these doctors are incredible. I am so confident in them. Plus, my plastic surgeon was also my mom’s plastic surgeon when she had her mastectomy back in November, and he did a great job with her reconstruction.

Oh yeah, that’s something I forgot to mention: reconstruction! I’m not going to be flat-chested, woohoo! I’m going to be getting silicone implants. But first, in order to prep my body for the implants and to make sure they are spaced correctly, I have tissue expanders. Tissue expanders are pockets of saline that are placed underneath the chest muscle. Over time they are gradually filled up with more saline. Once they are at my “ideal” breast size, the tissue expanders will be switched out for the silicone implants.

I’m using this blog as a way to shed light on this issue. It’s a pretty niche topic; not many resources exist for women like me. Throughout my posts I’ll be documenting my progress after the surgery. I’ll also backtrack and give background on my family history of breast cancer and how its presence in my life led up to my ultimate choice to have a prophylactic mastectomy.

Thanks for reading!

8 thoughts on “What would you do if you knew you were going to get cancer?

  1. So proud of you, Rachel! Tears filling my eyes and streaming down my checks! You go girl!!! Love and Blessings, Debra

    • You were there with us the first time, Debra. Thank God for wonderful neighbors like you who helped us get through it!

  2. Great writing, Rachel! Not to mention the logical decision-making – the 21st century girl’s guide to health. Well done, beautiful girl, Zsuzsa

  3. I have to echo Debra; there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater.

    Love your blog, GREAT JOB RACHEL! Your journey was written from the heart, you added great resources and photos that make you smile…Maddy & Baby Horn, love that photo.

    I’m just so thankful beyond words that your mom’s story and yours had a happy ending. Both of you are healthy and free of BC. XOXO

    P.S. Olive, I’m glad you signed up for this;-)

  4. So how did Mom react when Rachel told me her decision? I completely melted down! Burst into tears and wanted to know why she would consider mutilating her body right off the bat, instead of waiting and monitoring. Nice job, Mom. Way to make her feel good about the most important decision she has ever made, perhaps WILL ever make, in her life. (OK, so I was just a couple of days out of the hospital from my first surgery and was still in a drug-induced stupor, but that’s no excuse.) Thankfully, I’m a quick study and realized that as much as I love her and want to protect her, at the end of the day, Rachel has the only vote in this. I just have an opinion. The very best thing I could do was to keep being Mom…support her, protect her, and take care of her, no matter what decision she made.

  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to admit that the real reason for my meltdown (described in the previous comment) was GUILT. I was hit with this wave of guilt like I actually had CONTROL over passing that stupid gene mutation along to Rachel. Typical female reaction, right? Thankfully, I came to my senses and now that’s just an old memory that constantly reminds me that we really didn’t do anything wrong.

    Did I forget to mention that I also went through the ANGER phase? Aimed it square at my dad, that good-for-nothing SOB who never gave me anything I wanted and then gave me that horrible mutation. The anger passed, too. And like Rachel said, once those feelings are passed, there’s only room for action.

  6. Great Rachel!! I am just a guy in CHINA and your experience give me a lot of advice about my life. i used to live my life in worry..but i read your experience today and i know if i can handle the worry before every bad things happening,i can live a better life !!

    thank u

    and wish you have every nice day and be health forever~~8-)

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