I didn’t think cancer would happen to me, but in the fall of 2008, I was told that my father was BRCA 1 positive.
He had the breast cancer gene. Wow, I thought…he doesn’t even have boobs!
The gene mutation comes through one parent—mother or father—and has a 50% chance of being passed onto each of their children. For men, the percentages for breast cancer are increased, but still are very low. However, for women it’s very high, with up to a 47% chance of getting ovarian cancer and up to an 85% chance of getting breast cancer. Approximately one out of 40 Ashkenazi Jews are BRCA positive.
… Which meant that I had a 50% chance of being positive.
Two weeks later I found out that I too was positive, and my life changed forever, in a moment.
My journey had begun. My head was swimming. I was in a complete fog. What was I going to do?
For six weeks, I researched this BRCA “thing” and met with doctors from all over the medical field (14 in fact!). I asked them to give it to me straight: “What would you do?”
What if I was your mother? Wife? Sister? What advice would you give me?
For six weeks, I got up every day and somehow got my three young children up, dressed and to school, while agonizing over my future.
Finally, I made my educated and emotional decision. With the potential risks involved in waiting, I knew that I wouldn’t sleep at night until I was as proactive as possible. My first surgery would be in January. Happy New Year to me. Once the decision was made, my fog lifted.
Some people thought I was crazy to have these surgeries. “Such a drastic move!” “Maybe you’ll never get breast cancer.” “They said it was only up to 85%.” “What if your husband doesn’t look at you the same way…or at all?” (OK, seriously? Did she really just say that?)
While many thought I was crazy—many more thought that I was brave. And when I looked at my three children, Adi (then 8), Maya (6 ½), and Amit (age 3), I knew that I had to do everything in my power to be there for them, to be present in their lives.
I’m their mom! I had to be there to guide them, love them, and embarrass them as teenagers.
I wanted to be there for braces and first dances, bra shopping, b’nai mitzvahs… weddings… life.
How do you explain all of this to your kids?
To my 3-year-old, I told him that Mommy would have a “boo boo on her boobies.”
That actually worked.
I told my older two that Mommy would be a little different on the outside, but the same on the inside. That Mommy would be healthy and be with them.
As for my husband, Tal, he was supportive of the decision that I needed to come to on my own. He held me when I cried and when I was scared. He held me when I was strong and felt back in control of my life.
Looking into their eyes, I knew my decision was the right one for me. To protect our lives together as a family.
In January, I had an Oopherctomy (a big word for partial hysterectomy).
In March, I had a bilateral mastectomy.
In December, I got new boobies. Then I did nipple reconstruction, then nipple tattoos.
I am one of the lucky ones, I know.
With our cancer history, my family would never have been screened—or tested. We weren’t high enough on the “risk ladder.” It’s an expensive test—my insurance covered only part of the cost.
I did the surgery as a preventative measure. But when Dr. Kestenberg came into the exam room, a week after the mastectomy and said to me, “You’re cured,” and that, “You just saved your life,” I was stunned. The pathology showed three small areas of non-invasive cancer. Three areas that were not detected by mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI.
In that year, I not only learned new vocabulary (BRCA, Oophorectomy, etc.) but I have learned that in the face of difficult decisions—heart-wrenching decisions—I am strong. I am in control. What started out as a pre-emptive strike on avoiding cancer ended up saving my life.
To my father who said, “This is not the legacy I wanted to leave for my children,” he has given me such a gift. A gift to share my story with others, because I was taught that you have be the change you want to see in the world, and that if you save one life, it’s as if you have saved the entire world.
And to the person who asked me, “So, after all this, do you still feel like a woman?” I say hell yeah—a very powerful, smart perky woman indeed.