Jessica Queller’s life could be that of a TV movie. In fact, parts of it actually served as the plot for an episode of “ER."
In 2005, Queller, a supervising producer and one of the head writers of the ultra-successful CW series “Gossip Girl,” opted to have a double mastectomy even though she didn’t have breast cancer. And, in two years, she plans to have her ovaries removed – even though she doesn’t have ovarian cancer.
Queller, now 38, made these radical decisions after watching her mother battle breast cancer and die from ovarian cancer. Then, Queller tested positive for the breast cancer 1, or BRCA1 mutation, so she had the preventative mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
She is now trying to become pregnant before she has to have her ovaries removed.
Her experiences are detailed in a memoir titled “Pretty Is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although only a small percentage of Americans end up having the mutated gene that causes breast cancer, whether to get tested for it is a tough decision for women to make: Would you want to know if you were potentially going to get a deadly disease? And what if the only way to stop it involved cutting off your breasts or removing your reproductive organs?
Queller has written for accomplished WB shows like “One Tree Hill,” “Felicity” and “Gilmore Girls,” but “Gossip Girl,” which debuted in 2007 and averages about 3.4 million viewers each week, has generated controversy from the start: Revolving around a core group of Upper East Side teenagers, the plot is filled with just as much sex, drugs and alcohol as any adult show.
And just as much fun.
“I’ve had so much pain and trauma, that it’s fun to make up stories about Blair and Serena,” Queller told FOXNews.com in a recent phone interview, referring to the show’s main characters. “Even though I’ve been on successful shows, they’ve never had this kind of buzz. And, I went to a private school in New York City, so I draw from my nightmare experiences everyday. My sister was very much like Serena – a gorgeous, tall, blonde creature. And, not that I can identify with Blair – I’m not mean – but there is something about the dynamic.”
Incidentally, Queller’s mother, Stephanie was a fashion designer like Blair’s mother, Eleanor Waldorf. And even before Queller began working on the show, she noticed the actress who portrays Eleanor – Margaret Colin – resembled her late mother.
“As I write more episodes, I use my mom as an influence,” Queller said. “It’s kind of a way to honor her. It’s so nostalgic for me to write all that.”
Stephanie Queller was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer in December 2001. Just six years earlier she had beat stage II breast cancer.
Over the course of two years, Queller and her younger sister Danielle, 35, watched the devastating effects of cancer and chemotherapy take a hold of their once vivacious mother: loss of hair, loss of appetite, paralysis of the bowel, fatigue, mouth sores and nausea.
In 2003, Stephanie Queller died at the age of 60.
'Falling Down the Rabbit Hole'
Soon thereafter, Queller took what she thought would be a simple blood test to determine if she had the mutated BRCA1 gene.
Women who test positive for deleterious mutations in BRCA1 genes have up to an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer, and a 44 percent risk of ovarian cancer by the age of 70.
In her book, Queller described the feelings she had when a doctor she didn’t even know told her she had tested positive:
“You tested positive for the BRCA-1 mutation,” he said.
I tried to comprehend this statement. My immediate reaction was that the word positive sounded like a good thing, something positive. It took a few moments for my brain to process the fact that testing positive for a genetic mutation could not mean anything good.
“Positive is bad, right?”
“How bad?” “Statistically, you have up to an eighty-five or ninety-five percent chance of getting breast cancer.”
I sat in shocked silence. It was as if this doctor were speaking in Swahili and expecting me to understand him. As if I had fallen down the rabbit hole and decks of cards were talking. As if the logic and rules of my universe had changed. And in fact, they had.
Queller had two options: surveillance and careful screening or prophylactic surgery.
“People ask me all the time if my life was split in half by this news,” Queller said. “But, my life was split in half by my mother’s illness and death. I’ve never witnessed such horror. I’m completely traumatized. I never imagined such suffering could be real. Every decision I made was based on what I witnessed her going through. I just knew instinctively I’d do anything to avoid getting cancer.”
Still, Queller didn’t take her decision lightly. She spent months researching the BRCA genes and learned everything there was to know about them.
From her book:
— Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Only a small percentage of people wind up with mutated genes. The highest incidences happen among Ashkenazi Jews, (which Queller is).
— One estimate suggests that one in about 800 people wind up with a defective BRCA1 gene, while BRCA2 mutations are less frequent. BRCA mutations account for only five to 10 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in America.
— Current studies showed that chemoprevention —like tamoxifen —proved only effective for women who were BRCA2 positive.
— The BRCA genes are known as tumor suppressors.
— The BRCA1 and 2 genes are similar in function, but are located on different chromosomes.
— If one parent carries the BRCA mutation, his or her offspring has a 50 percent chance of inheriting it (Queller doesn’t know if her mother had the gene).
— Prophylactic mastectomy reduces risk of breast cancer by 90 percent, but the surgeon can’t get all the tissue and overlying skin.
“The final straw was going to the plastic surgeon and asking what was the best case scenario,” Queller said. “If we caught it at the very earliest stage, I’d still have to get a mastectomy and I’d still be in fear of my life that a stray cancer cell that escaped.”
Queller had the surgery in October 2005 – and her doctors told her she had made the right decision. They found precancerous changes in her right breast tissue, or atypical ductal hyperplasia.
The subsequent expansion process and reconstructive surgery would follow in the next two months. All the while, Queller was still trying to maintain a normal life, which meant, like any other single thirty-something, she was trying to find Mr. Right.
She said the hardest part of the surgery was fearing she wouldn’t feel beautiful or sexy again, and wondering if any man would want to date a woman who had had a mastectomy.
But Queller said even though it sounds crazy, she doesn’t miss her old breasts, and she has dated “a number of people,” since the operation, including one significant person for a year-and-a-half.
“I remain picky,” she said, laughing a little. “I’m not going to settle after all this.”
Queller has tried several times to become pregnant through in-vitro fertilization with donated sperm, and she is trying again this month.
Her sister, Danielle, who has one son, Miles, 2, also tested positive for the mutated BRCA1 gene, underwent a prophylactic mastectomy in March 2007.
When Queller speaks to women’s groups about her experience, she said she tells them not to be afraid of a mastectomy.
“The fear is what stops them – it almost stopped me,” she said. “And the reality wasn’t too frightening.”
She also said she encourages other women to take the BRCA test.
“I believe knowledge is power,” she said. “I think the more information you have, the better you can protect yourself. My mother wanted to live so badly, so I guess I feel like to honor her memory I want to spread the word and help as many people claim their lives and not succumb to this horrible illness.”