What would you do if you were one of three daughters — out of five — who developed breast cancer in their 30s?
And, what would you do if all five of you tested positive for a hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) mutation that you inherited not from your mother, but your father?
This is my family, and since its breast cancer awareness month, I thought I take this week's column and share what I've learned.
But first, HBOC has some red flags. Some of those include breast cancer under the age of 50, being Ashkenazi Jewish, having ovarian cancer or male breast cancer at any age, having multiple primary cancers, and or having multiple BRCA mutation carriers in your family. BRCA is a breast and ovarian cancer mutation and there are two of them: BRCA1 and BRCA2.
I was the first of my sisters, at 31, to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Eight years later I tested positive for BRCA1.
Although my journey through all this breast cancer and HBOC stuff hasn't always been a cakewalk — loss of hair, body parts and even relationships — I'm here to tell you that it's been an unforeseen gift, one that has truly been an opportunity in disguise.
Because of cancer and HBOC, I've met amazing patients who have taught me resilience beyond measure — including my aunt Judy, one of my father's sisters, who succumbed to breast cancer, but who laughed and smiled in the face of adversity up until the very end.
To this day, when I think of her, she makes me smile and laugh, her spirit is still that contagious.
I learned more about my family history, especially my paternal legacy and that of my grandmother, who died of breast cancer, and of her mother, who died of ovarian cancer, and even of her mother, who died of breast cancer.
I've met passionate healthcare professionals who do things for the right reasons, even and especially if it takes more time.
For them, they don't make excuses, and a paycheck is the last thing on their mind.
I've learned that missing hair and body parts doesn't define a person, but that you can even — as one of my sister's plastic surgeon told her — "Become a work of art."
I've learned that cancer and also HBOC can help you find purpose. In my case, I now educate people across the country about HBOC, and I am studying "cancerous" behaviors in the workplace in a doctoral program.
I've learned to take what I know about HBOC and help find "previvors" (i.e. those who test positive for a mutation but do not have cancer yet) like my two youngest sisters, so that their lives as well as their extended family members' can be saved.
None of these things would have been possible if I weren't diagnosed with breast cancer and HBOC.
The best news?
We now have an answer to why six generations in our family have been getting cancer.
If you've been diagnosed with cancer or have HBOC, let it be a good thing. Learn and grow from it. Let it make you.
After all, according to author Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., "Diseases can be our spiritual flat tires — disruptions in our lives that seem to be disasters at the time, but end by redirecting our lives in a meaningful way."