“I think you need to mourn this.”

That’s not something  you really want to hear from a therapist.  It’s sort of a verification that, yeah, your situation’s gotten pretty sucky.

On the other hand, it’s also an opportunity to just get yourself together.

Yes, I got bad news. About three weeks ago, I did get my test results I was worried about, and I didn’t know what to make of it, so I didn’t write about it right away. I’m still conflicted.

On the intellectual edge of my brain, I think, yeah, big whopping deal: I carry a mutated gene (the BRCA2) that makes breast cancer.  Time bomb?  Yes, but I knew I was at risk anyway. 

And then I start analyzing and planning: So what does this test result mean?

Right now, it means that I’m twenty-three years old and should learn how to live with the knowledge that my health and my body, as they appear now, are only temporary, which is true for everyone. 

But it also means that I’ll need to undergo annual mammograms starting at age 25, with MRIs scheduled at varying intervals along with some uncomfortable ultrasounds (because the BRCA2 gene mutation carries ovarian cancer risk, too). It means that I’ll have to be extra mindful about what I eat (fried foods and sugar = cancer-cell heaven), how much weight I gain (fat stores estrogen, which feeds my kind of breast cancer), and how much I expose myself to cigarette smoke (duh).  It also means that I need to avoid estradiol-based birth control pills (because research currently suggests that they might feed estrogen-receptive cancer).  And I know I need to be doing my cardio, and it’d be great if I could get pregnant and have my estrogen get replaced with progesterone and make my cyclical fluxes stop and hence disrupt estrogen-linked . . . yeah, you get the idea.  To be utterly forthright about it, I just have to adjust and make some lifestyle changes starting now.

That all doesn’t bother me, really.  Dieting, exercising, and going to the doctor a lot more than is financially feasible when you’re a recent college grad doing pud jobs without medical insurance is just part of the package of my family history. I sorta knew that, test or no test.

It’s the future that bothers me. 

Now three weeks out from my results, my mind is still spinning over what I hope will never be. Because in the future, I know I might have the chance of really screwing over my kids’ childhoods if I don’t stay on top of my health and wind up needing to go through cancer treatment when my kids are still young and need me to just be “normal.” It also means I might screw over their childhoods even if I do stay on top of things, just based on current physician advisement that argues for me undergoing a prophylactic oophrectomy at age 40 combined with anti-estrogen type medication that will flip my female hormone levels upside down and turn me into a raving bitch with severe hot flashes while I force myself through an early menopause.  Makes for a lovely mom, huh?  Not to mention how this will change my sexual appetite. Yeah, bummer;  what a wife.  After just a little over a decade of marriage, this could be what the poor sap gets.

Knowing  that this could be, the risk involved in just trying to live a “normal” life seems very great.  That was my first thought, once I finished eking out one-syllable responses to the nurse who gave me my test results in friendly but very terse terms.  Why did this thought occur to me?

Well, it seems there is still a seeping, half-scabbed-over remnant of the deep traumatic wound of watching my father die and my family life fall apart that is still in my heart, and it warns me away from even seeking to bring a family into being. It’s a part of me that is afraid of hurting someone else just by sharing myself—with all my mutant, self-detonating genetic baggage—with loved ones in such a way that would cause them grief at my changing, at my passing.  I don’t even know what to call that. It’s not bad self-esteem, really; I acknowledge that I’m loveable. And that’s the problem—I don’t want them to love and be destroyed.

“But isn’t that the risk everyone takes—that the person they love now, that they marry now, will someday be someone different?” asked my therapist, who deals most often with depressed divorcees who have rudely awakened to this very knowledge.  “Don’t we all risk that we ourselves, by simply living, will change and weaken and die? The difference is, you know what might change you, and you can try to take control of it now.”

It’s true, I suppose.  Given what I know, I can decide ahead of time that I won’t “do” cancer the way my parents did: I won’t let it sneak up on me like it snuck up on my father,  who no one would have imagined would be cancer-prone after years of clean living and an active lifestyle.  And unlike my mom, I won’t let the changes cancer and cancer meds will make to my body change my mindset—I’ll fight the personality shifts like a cat fights going into the bathtub (and occasionally wins—true story, ask my Delilah). 

And because I’ve seen breast cancer and breast cancer treatment in action, I’ll know more what to expect. I could plan. If I’m smart, I can out-think it like a half-finished Sudoku puzzle. I might even have the foresight to imagine and escape the awful possibilities because I’ve seen a lot of them.  For example, I’d know that if I ever get a Stage 4 diagnosis, it’d be time to write my love notes and say my goodbyes because I won’t have much control over what time I have left anymore–and I won’t leave my family wondering where I left those notes and if I ever wrote them, like I wondered for a year about my father, who didn’t seem ready to die.  And yes—when it comes down to it—I could be more ready for death than he was.  I could do that.  If I were strong enough.  And maybe someday, I will be. Or I’ll have to be.

"Those glowing eyes have magic healing powers," Dad wrote in his email, to which this post-procedure recovery photo was attached. That was his first surgery, in September of '06. And yes, the cat is Delilah.

"Those glowing eyes have magic healing powers," Dad wrote in his e-mail, to which this post-procedure recovery photo was attached. That was his first surgery, in September of '06. And yes, the cat is Delilah.

I’m going to take a break from my pity-party now and put in some writing here that really matters and actually puts this whole freakishly morbid post into perspective. It’s an e-mail from my dad that I’ve saved for years, and I’m very glad I saved it. He wrote it about six months after his initial diagnosis, but he doesn’t really mention himself at all (typical Dad—and at this point, he was optimistic about his treatment. Sigh.).  So it’s not a goodbye letter—not the letter I look for every time a new notebook of his turns up when we go through a new batch of his things. No, Dad wrote this for me way back when I was trying to find myself in college (Ha!  If only I could go through that again!) and was having trouble just digging myself out of my own rut and struggling with feeling very afraid of my own future, academically and career-wise.

Sent: Tuesday, March 20, 2007 8:00 AM

Subject: Sending our Love

Dear Sweetie,

I was troubled to hear about this trying time that you are going through, but also know that such times seem to be universal as part of our human condition.  It can be troubling to know that God allows such times, but also troubling to realize that we sometimes contribute to them and bring them on ourselves.  God is still with us and available to us as our guide and strength during such times.  His guide is His Word, and I found what I read this morning to be such a comfort:

Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in thee; yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast. Ps. 57:11 

But I will sing of thy power; yea. I will sing aloud of thy mercy in the morning; for thou hast been my defense and refuge in the day of my trouble.  Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing; for God is my defense, and the God of my mercy.  Ps. 59:16-17

Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.  From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.  Ps. 61: 1-2

I’m thankful this morning that Christ is that rock and that he is our guide during times of trouble.  I’m also thankful that I have a daughter like you and that you have brought great joy to my life!  Be strong!



Incidentally, Dad also wrote the following in an e-mail addressed to the whole family regarding his own situation during something of a turning point for him months later:

“From my experience, one can move ahead with our own agenda in a crisis, or one can ponderously back off from the situation and learn what God is trying to communicate.”

In both cases, Dad gives the same advice: Quit thinking. Quit planning.  Just listen. And wait. Wait for God to cover you and lead you to the rock.

You can’t say the man wasn’t consistent.

I’ll close with this, an excerpt from one of Dad’s many Bible study notebooks, written in his own paraphrase of Isaiah 30:18.

“Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you, and therefore waits on high to have compassion on you. For the Lord is a God of justice.  How blessed are those who long for Him.”

Love you, Dad.  Miss you. Terribly.