Put to the Test: The Breast Cancer Gene

A woman with breast cancer undergoes genetic testing to find out whether she carries a breast cancer gene

By Peggy Orenstein

I nodded again. "Now this section," she said, pointing to a thin, black sliver of the pie. "This is where I think you fall. These are people with a genetic mutation. My suspicion would be that you have a BRCA1 mutation. It carries a 60 to 85 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer and a 20 to 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer." She went on to say that if I did have children, there was a 50 percent chance that I would pass the mutation on. She continued, but my mind had already floated away. It was so tacky to make that pie segment black, I was thinking, so insensitive. Couldn’t they make it green? Or polka-dotted? Less of a grim reaper?

I focused my anger on the chart; I couldn’t absorb what the counselor was saying. Not yet. If she was guessing right, that meant I could get cancer again and again? And the next time, it could be in my ovaries? If I had children and they got sick, it would be my fault. Should I not have them? What if my mother hadn’t had me?

If I did have the mutation, I finally heard Lisa say, the most effective risk-reducing options for mutation carriers were a double mastectomy and an ovariectomy, removal of one or both ovaries. That is: amputation of healthy body parts. Once again, I gazed down at my body, which suddenly seemed like an assassin, a stranger. I’m a journalist, someone who believes in the power of knowledge. But for the first time in my life, I was weary of information. I wanted to go back to the land of the well; I wanted my visa to this other, desolate country permanently revoked.

The Gene I Didn’t Get

A long time later, I would find a kind of terrible beauty, a poetry in the BRCA mutations. They are ancient flaws, which some say date back to about 75 CE, around the time when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and forced the Jews into an exile that would last nearly two thousand years. There are now as many as 11 million Ashkenazim scattered throughout the world, but, since we’ve had a tendency to intermarry, we mostly descend from the same few thousand forbears. As devastating as the thought of having a mutation was, it was still a tangible connection to my deepest past, to a web of ancestors stretching across millennia. One of my grandparents had carried that legacy, deadly yet sacred, in its history. So had his or her grandparents. And their grandparents. And theirs. The schism in our DNA had flowed through each of them into my own mother’s blood and finally into mine. Somehow, knowing they were all in me — with me — through this made me feel stronger.

I also read about a study of people with perfect pitch. That trait too may be partially genetic and, as it happens, may be disproportionately found in Ashkenazi Jews. My brother has it, as does his son. I do not. Great, I thought. They got the perfect pitch gene, while it looks like I got the cancer gene — and I might add, the fat upper arms.

Taking the Genetic Test

Why is there no exact feminine equivalent of the word emasculated? That’s how I felt about the idea of prophylactically removing both of my breasts. Maybe they aren’t the only source of my femininity, my sexuality, but I’m rather attached to them (as they are to me). We have a lot of history together, me and the girls: standing up to those junior high boys who called me a pirate’s dream (because of my "buried treasure"); chanting the legendary bust-increasing mantra from "Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret." (It didn’t work.) Giving pleasure. Getting pleasure.

I had chosen lumpectomy before, in part because I felt it would leave me less scarred, psychologically as well as physically, by my illness. Some women feel the opposite — mastectomy, even when clinically unnecessary, is a reassertion of control over their bodies, their destinies — but I needed to be able to look into the mirror each day and see, more or less, what I always had. I was willing to wager that the kind of breast cancer I had was the kind my body would always make: slow growing and treatable. I had no idea whether that was actually true.

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