I don’t miss an opportunity to encourage friends, church members and sometimes random women who’s conversations I overhear to check their breasts. I have been known to explain exactly how to do a self breast exam, when you should do it and why. I may have had visual aides. I mean, that might have happened once or twice. It’s not just because my mother died of breast cancer, but that this disease really could strike anyone. (That’s right gentlemen, even you.) I appreciate anytime that someone is brave enough to bring this conversation out in the open so that I can put away my visual aides.
Angelina Jolie did just that today in an Op-Ed in the New York Times. She tells her story about her kids, her husband and her choice to have a mastectomy. It’s a choice that she makes because she has the BRCA1 gene. This isn’t the only gene that carries the high risk of developing breast cancer. There’s also the BRCA2. The article doesn’t talk about this first decision — the one that I have struggled with for years — the decision to be tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. Jolie only mentions its prohibitive cost. And it is. It’s a very expensive test, but it’s not the only cost.
Jolie doesn’t talk about watching her mother die. She doesn’t talk about what it feels like to fear that she might meet that same fate. She doesn’t talk about the fact that women still get this awful disease without carrying the gene. The test will give you an answer, but it will leave you with more questions. It’s the reason I haven’t decided to take the test. Because I don’t know how I would live after it.
Because I would still worry. It wouldn’t be a simple surgery that has me back on my feet in nine days that would put my mind at ease. I would still be pulling out my visual aides and freaking out at every pimple on my breast. The risk of breast cancer would still be there. It’s why I won’t take the test. Not today anyway. Because I can’t decide if it’s better to know how you might die. We all know that we will die one day. I have had that sense of my own mortality since my mother died. I am well aware that this disease could kick my ass. My challenge is not how I will beat breast cancer, but how will I choose to live? Breast cancer may be embedded in my DNA. Or it might not. There is still a high risk that this disease could be my demise, but I have doctors that understand this. I get my annual mammogram. I check my breasts. It is a elaborate process but my doctors assure me that this test is not required. They, too, encourage me to embrace this short life because there is so much life to live.
Jolie’s story is not my story. My story doesn’t speak for her. Neither one of our stories will speak for every woman trying to make this decision. It’s a tough one, but it is a choice we each make. I choose to live as fully as possible with the help of an awesome medial team.