Beating the BRCA Gene

This week, Noreen is in Seuol, Korea, giving the keynote speech at the Global Breast Cancer Conference. She asked me to fill in for her while she is out of town. It is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we figured we should keep the dialogue going.

This October is interesting for me. As we spend the month blinded by all of the pink, I can’t keep my mind off of one date in particular – and it’s not in October – December 11.

On December 11, I will be 39 years and 24 days old, which means I will be the first woman in three generations to outlive her mother. It’s a little dark, I know, but if I can’t celebrate the fact that I am kicking the BRCA gene’s butt during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when can I?

Five years ago, with a simple blood test, I discovered that I have the breast cancer gene, which gives me an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer and over a 30 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer. The test was recommended to me because my maternal grandmother had died of breast cancer when she was in her early 40s, my mom died at 39 (and 23 days), my aunt in her early 50s and my first cousin at 41.

The day I learned that I had the gene, I remember feeling sadness not just for myself, but a real gut- wrenching despair for my mother, who never had such an opportunity available to her. If she had been given the test and found out she too had the gene, might she have been able to take measures that would have let me have my mother past the age of 14? It’s unbearable to think about at times.

After I received my results, I immediately began increasing my screenings as recommended by my doctor. I joined a study at the University of Chicago and wound up getting a mammogram, ultrasound and two MRIs of my breasts every year. Thank goodness all of my tests were clear, but I didn’t like the feeling of waiting for cancer to rear its ugly head, so I decided to be proactive and had a preventative hysterectomy with ovary removal and a bilateral mastectomy.

I will never forget the day after my mastectomy when I worked up the guts to look at myself in the mirror. I opened my hospital gown and looked at what had been my breasts and said out loud, “I made a mistake.”

Immediately, I had that sour taste of regret burning the back of my throat and the weight of what felt like a truckload of remorse on my chest. It was awful.

A week after my surgery I went to my surgeon for my post-op check up. The doctor said she had something to tell me. She said, “Michelle, as a matter of course, we sent your breast tissue to the pathologist to examine. Your pathology report showed you had DCIS in your left breast.”

“Oh,” I said, “what’s DCIS?”

She paused, took a deep breath and answered, “Cancer.”

Through my tears, she explained that there had been several areas of cancer in my left breast that had gone undetected in all of the tests. However, they had gotten it all and I would require no further treatment; no chemo, no radiation. That was it. I remember her exact words: “You saved your life.”

As the tears grew stronger and stronger, the weight on my chest flew right out the window, the tightness in my throat completely dissipated. Despite the odds, I had beat breast cancer. I smiled from ear to ear. That was two years ago.

As I celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, (yes, I celebrate it!), I look forward to December 11. It proves there is hope. It shows that research has made huge developments, which are letting women live longer and longer. I hope you all take a moment during the month to celebrate, too. Maybe you will celebrate the strength of someone battling breast cancer or the amazing life of someone who lost their battle, but celebrate nonetheless.

I am going to throw myself a little party and if anyone wants to know what I want, it’s the pink chocolate pears from Harry & David. They are donating 20 percent of the proceeds to the Noreen Fraser Foundation so we can continue to fund research that brings along the next generation of improvements in prevention, detection and treatments. Send them to someone you care about. The progress is real, and these are the best pears I have ever tasted in my life.

Michelle McBride is the vice-president of the Noreen Fraser Foundation.

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