I have always been a fearful person. I’m the type who sees a smudge on her leg and thinks, “it’s cancer!” only to realize it’s newsprint from the Sunday paper. I barely considered myself strong enough for a root canal, let alone the diagnosis I got at age thirty-eight, when a blood test confirmed I was positive for a mutation on the BRCA1 gene, often called “the breast cancer gene.” I was told my chance of developing the disease within my lifetime was eighty percent.
The women in my family get breast cancer. My mother was diagnosed in 1972, when many considered it a death sentence. She had a mastectomy, which left her chest so gouged that in profile she looked like a delicate letter C, but I never once heard her complain. My sister was equally incredible. “I was hoping to keep up with your exercise schedule when you were on chemo,” I teased her, “but clearly I was wrong.” I always wondered how they got the strong genes while I got the genes that made me fear killer bees would invade Central Park.
When I was forty, I decided to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy. My concern was not only for my breasts, which would be removed, but also for my mind. Was I strong enough? I’d been prone to anxiety attacks that felt like horses were stampeding across my chest. As I faced my operation, I decided rather than fight my fears, I would embrace them.
“I’m afraid of how my breasts will look after they’re reconstructed,” I told my sister. “Am I going to look like Pamela Anderson or Hans Christian Anderson?” As we both laughed, I realized this was my way of coping with something that scared me. I’d been so focused on the ways in which I wasn’t like my mother and sister that it didn’t occur to me that all strength doesn’t look alike. Maybe my version of strength was joking, “Why do I have to get my breasts removed? I actually like them. Why couldn’t I be getting a cellulite-ectomy”
When I took the BRCA1 test, I calmed myself by thinking “you are not your genes,” but now I believe I am my genes. I believe that in addition to sharing the gene mutation with my mother and sister, we share another gene: resilience. I so underestimated myself thinking I would crack. Once I feared having my genes, but now I’d fear not having them. I come from a long line of fighters. For my mother, it was valiantly battling the brain tumor that took her life at age seventy. For my sister, it’s savoring every day as a four-year survivor. For me, it’s knowing that whatever I face, I will be able to handle it. That is the other gene we share, the gene I actually hope will define me and the rest of my life, and for that, I could not feel more fortunate.