Two years ago this week I had a routine mammogram that showed I needed a needle biopsy. Less than a week later I had flown 1500km to have the biopsy as quickly as possible, and a few days later, back at home, May 31st, I was told I had breast cancer. Last evening we saw in the news that Angelina Jolie has taken preventative measures after learning she has the BRCA 2 gene.
Many are calling her courageous and, yes, I do too, because all women who face this decision have not only the difficult decision itself but the pain and consequences inherent in such a decision. But let’s be clear about what leads to this courageous decision and course of action. What is the conversation we need to have? First, have the conversation with yourself about getting routine checkups.
The thing I have learned about cancer (read: ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee) is that almost every single case is unique. Try to get your head around that. Each human being is unique, and each cancer is as well. The combinations of possibilities are endless. If we don’t do our part to look after ourselves and to have checkups is it any wonder in which direction that behaviour will tip the scales?
Be pro-active. In my own case, I live in a remote area of Outback Australia but I made the habit of getting a routine mammogram from the time I turned 50. There was a lot of cancer in my Dad’s family. His mother had breast cancer at about the same age as did I. Dad had prostate cancer which is what is called a ‘soft tissue’ cancer and has some influence on the inherited tendencies. At the age of 47 I had an upper endoscopy and was told I had what could potentially become esophageal cancer. After following the doctor’s advice a follow up endoscopy last year (12 years later) has shown the problem has been reversed. I have had 13 moles removed, 12 of which were the type that turn into melanoma. At the age of 52 I had my ovaries removed when I had a hysterectomy. At age 58 I had the breast cancer followed by 7 weeks/five times a week, radiation treatment. And all this while one of my closest friends, about whom I’ve written on my blog (read: Remembering Ivy) was battling breast cancer and eventually died from it, having had a preventative double mastectomy!!! Let me repeat that, she had a preventative double mastectomy.
Here is the rest of the conversation you must have with yourself and with others, if you can. Discuss options. Be as open as you can about your experience, if you have had cancer or loved someone who has. There are no guarantees in life. I have lived healthy, am not overweight, have exercised, tried to reduce stress, breathed clean air, don’t smoke, wear sunscreen etc. etc. I got cancer. Ivy was the same. She died of secondary breast cancer at the age of 58. There are no guarantees. Have the conversations, have the tests and have the treatment. Give yourself a better chance.