As a 46-year-old single mother of two boys—now 16 and 21—I knew I had to take charge of my own health. I couldn’t sit idly by and let the disease that took my mother and my grandmother take me, too. "Not me,” I said. “You're not going to get me. You've gotten three women in my family, and it stops with me."
So I decided to take some serious steps. I was already getting mammograms in my 30s because of my family history, but I started getting screened every three to four months and even considered getting a preventive mastectomy. Some people thought I was crazy. But my doctor called me a “ticking time bomb” because of my family history, so I knew cancer would come for me if I didn’t beat it first. I would say, "It's my life, my decision," and push forward.
After my aunt was diagnosed, my doctor and I did extensive genetic testing, including the test for BRCA genes 1 and 2 mutations. Knowing that a positive result for those mutations would put me at an increased risk, I spent six weeks worrying about the results. It was intense, but I learned a lot about my family and myself.
And what a relief: I found out I was negative for the BRCA mutations. But I couldn’t get complacent. I still suspected there might be a genetic cause of my family’s breast cancer, so we kept testing. And eventually I learned that I have the gene for Lynch syndrome, which makes you more prone to colon, breast, brain and lung cancer. I cried when I found out.
The diagnosis made sense—my grandmother had breast cancer, and three of her sisters had brain, lung and colon cancers. I decided the next step was to schedule a mastectomy, but my insurance wouldn’t cover it. Even with the positive genetic results, I wasn’t a high-enough risk. “You’re absolutely crazy,” my doctor told the insurance company. “It’s only a matter of time before we find this.”
He tried to fight for me, but it wasn’t until two and a half years later that it became clear I was high risk: Lying in bed, I scratched an itch under my arm and felt my lymph node pop out. After an MRI and more conversations with the insurance company, my doctor called me—the day before Thanksgiving, the same time of year my mother passed—to let me know that the surgery would finally be covered. According to the MRI, I had pre-invasive cancer cells that earlier screenings couldn’t find.
As relieved as I was, I can’t say I wasn’t nervous. I was scared. I cried. But I have two beautiful boys and I never wanted my sons to see me break. If I couldn’t be a pillar of strength for them, who could?
On the morning of my surgery, I hugged my youngest son, Christian. “This is it,” I said as I comforted him, “this is where the worrying stops.”