Was My Breast Cancer Just a Fluke?
The thing I remember most about being told I had breast cancer was how the colors in my home office — where I’d been tidying up for the day, preparing to go to a movie with my husband — went flat. Isn’t that odd, I thought, looking down at my newly alien torso. My red shirt has turned gray. My red shirt has turned gray, and I might die.
That spectrum shift was the first sign that I’d passed through an invisible membrane into the parallel universe of the ill. I turned to my husband, Steven, who was standing in the doorway, listening in disbelief on the extension as the surgeon told us that I was a lucky woman, that the cancer was low-grade and slow growing, eminently treatable with a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation. We stared at each other for a beat, as close and as distant as we had ever been. He reached his hand out, as if to keep me with him. "But I eat organic broccoli!" I wailed, and then began to cry.
That was January 1997, only six weeks past my thirty-fifth birthday. The odds of being diagnosed at that age were one in 233. A fluke. "Do you have a family history?" an acquaintance asked when I told her the news. I suppose it was a natural question, although fewer than a quarter of breast cancers are familial. But it struck me — along with the inevitable queries I’d field about whether I held in anger, had endured a trauma, or had been depressed — as a way for other women, under the guise of caring, to reassure themselves that they were safe. "No, I don’t," I snapped. "No one in my family has had breast cancer. I’m just like you."
As far as I knew, that was true.
A week later, I read an article in the paper about a blood test that could detect inherited mutations in the BRCA genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. In most women the BRCA genes suppress tumor growth. In some families, however, the gene contains a flaw, passed along by either the mother or the father, that makes it do the opposite, predisposing its carriers to breast and ovarian cancer. About one in 800 people carry the BRCA1 mutation in the general public, but among Ashkenazi Jews — those whose ancestors emigrated from middle or Eastern Europe — the rate of mutations in either gene is closer to one in 40. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew. My aunt had died of ovarian cancer at 54. At the time, we thought that was a fluke too. Yet even as the thought, this could be me, entered my head, I rejected the idea. No one else in my extended family had been sick. Besides, I already knew my lifetime breast cancer risk: It was 100 percent.
There is a little bit of Vegas in predictive genetic testing, a roll of the statistical dice. Even if you found, let’s say, that you had an 80 percent risk for some disease, who’s to say you wouldn’t be in the other 20 percent? What if the known risk-reducing treatments come with risks of their own, the way tamoxifen, the widely used breast cancer drug, increases the risk of uterine cancer? Increasingly, all of us will be running the numbers and weighing the trade-offs on one scary condition or another — we all have skeletons lurking in our skeletons. In its zeal to find them, science has outpaced the medical, psychological, and ethical implications of its discoveries.
Cardiovascular disease. Diabetes. There will be gene tests for all of them and more, and each will bring with it the same questions: Who should be tested? What is the benefit of knowing you’re at risk, especially if, as with the degenerative and ultimately fatal Huntington’s disease, there is no cure available? What responsibility does a person who tests have to family members, including those who might not want to know the status? Should genetic testing be a factor in choosing whom you marry? Would some couples want to abort if their fetuses were found to have a tendency toward cancer? Mutations are not a guarantee of cancer, remember, and cancer is by no means a death sentence. Maybe there are some things we can’t, or shouldn’t, control.
The BRCA tests were among the first gene tests to hit the marketplace, and since they involve half the population and are harbingers of so much to come, they’re important and bear watching. That doesn’t make them any easier to deal with. "There are people who come in for their first genetic counseling session, then we never see them again," said Richard King, director of the division of genetics and molecular medicine program at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. "The risks are scary to face. But I’ve also seen the benefits of testing, even with Huntington’s disease. Families can get things organized and understand things better, be more prepared.
"Would I be tested in that position?" he paused. "I don’t know. I can’t give a direct answer without thinking about it. Just like everyone else."
A Schism in Our DNA
My mother mentioned something in passing: My Great Aunt Goldie had died of a "stomach ailment."
"You mean she had ovarian cancer?" I asked.
She hesitated. "It’s possible," she said. "Though who knows? Back then, it could’ve been appendicitis."
Oh, she continued, and Great Aunt Jane? On Grandpa’s side? She had breast cancer in her 70s. And Anice, my first cousin once removed? The one who’d lived on a ranch in Montana? Breast cancer killed her in her early 40s. Then there was Great Aunt Minnie; she died of breast cancer too. "But she was phobic," my mom assured me, as if mental illness changed the physical one. Minnie wore only white and lived in an all-white house in Los Angeles with all-white furniture, including her grand piano. When she got sick, she refused to go to a hospital for treatment — she was afraid there’d be germs there. It seemed to me that Minnie had a lot more to worry about than breast cancer.
I, on the other hand, was getting increasingly nervous — maybe cancer really did lurk in my family’s gene pool. I still hoped to have children; what might I be passing on to them? A year after finishing my breast cancer treatment, I finally mentioned it to my GP. "Everyone has some family history of cancer," he said, shrugging. But he suggested I make an appointment with a genetic counselor, saying, "I think it will ease your mind."
I eyed the other patients at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California San Francisco. Were they getting treatment, or were they also waiting for someone to read their genetic tea leaves? An elderly couple shuffled in with his-and-hers walkers, the legs of which had been made scuff-proof by attaching Day-Glo tennis balls. In another context I might have pitied them their frailty, but nowI found myself envious. At least they’d made it this far.
Calculating My Breast Cancer Risk
My counselor was a young, sweet-faced woman named Lisa, who would assess my risk of a mutation from what was already known; then the decision of whether to get tested would be mine. She took my family history, tapping her pencil on her desk a few times before explaining that a Jewish family with just one case of early onset breast cancer, combined with one case of ovarian cancer at any age, was statistically likely to have a mutation. Then she pulled out a pie chart. "See this section?" she asked, pointing to a large white slice. "This is sporadic breast cancer. It’s random. It represents about 70 percent of all breast cancers. These women have no previous family history of disease."
I nodded. That, I had assumed, was me. "Now see this section?" she continued, pointing to a smaller, striped area. "These are people with familial cancer, but without any known cancer-gene involvement; they may have other behavioral or inherited factors at work, such as body size or a naturally higher level of estrogen. This represents about 20 percent of cases.’‘
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.
Ovarian cancer was a different story — it’s hard to detect, and nearly 65 percent of sufferers die within five years of diagnosis. I’d seen my aunt’s abdomen swell to the size of a basketball and watched the mischief and vitality drain from her lovely face. "Numbers aren’t the only way women make these decisions," said Beth Crawford, manager of UCSF’s cancer risk program. "If you’ve experienced loss, you may make a different choice than someone with little history of cancer in her family. I’ve met women who don’t have retirement accounts, they’re so convinced that they’ll die young. For them, knowing they can reduce risk with a mastectomy or ovariectomy comes as a relief."
Yes, No, Maybe?
About a third of the women who test positive in Crawford’s program have risk-reducing double mastectomies, and two-thirds undergo a risk-reducing ovariectomy. Seventeen percent of the latter group have turned out to have early stage, highly treatable cancers, tumors which, without the surgery, would probably not have been caught until they were lethal. That was a pretty powerful argument. On the other hand, I wasn’t eager to experience the jarring discomforts or health risks of early, surgical menopause. "Risk tolerance is different for everyone," Crawford said. "Some women can just monitor themselves closely and sit comfortably with that; others can’t. Everyone has to come to the decision that best allows them to go forward."
And what would that decision be for me? I stood at the craps table, feeling truly crappy, wondering what testing would mean to my mind, my body, my heart. I kept shaking those dice for the next six years. Then, at age 41, I gave birth to my daughter, and it became clear: I wanted to be here for her first day of kindergarten, to dance at her wedding and to meet my grandchildren. I needed to be tested. Either way, I’d keep my breasts, but if it came out positive for the mutation, I wanted my ovaries gone. Now. And so one day, in between the breastfeeding and diaper changing, I drove to the hospital, had my blood drawn and let those dice roll. The strangest thing was, I wasn’t even sure which result I was rooting for.
It came out negative.
"We were as surprised as you are," Crawford told me. "We calculated that you had a 90 percent chance of being positive.
"We call this an uninformed rather than a true negative," she added, explaining that if you thought of the BRCA gene as a document, the current test functioned as a spell and grammar check: It could find missing, extra or transposed letters and words. But if a whole sequence or chapter was gone, the test wouldn’t know anything was missing and would come out clean. So I might still have a mutation, they just couldn’t yet find it. I’d expected a yes or a no — or, more precisely, I’d expected a yes. But a maybe? No one told me that was a possibility. "Do I still have the ovariectomy?" I asked.
"Well, we can’t really make any recommendations beyond regular surveillance, because you don’t have a known mutation. Maybe in another year or so we’ll have something new to offer you." She smiled sympathetically. "I’m afraid this is a bit like peeling an onion."
I walked out of the hospital into the Northern California fog more lost and frightened than when I’d gone in. Perhaps my body really was a time bomb. Or maybe my cancer and my aunt’s were totally unrelated. A fluke, after all. I’d finally gambled on the test, and what did I learn? Bupkes. Part of me wished I had tested positive. At least then I’d know how to protect myself. Instead, I was left with the unknown — like everyone else.
The truth is, it’s not possible to ward off all evil, all disease, all ill luck. Maybe, someday, there will be much better detection, better treatment of breast and ovarian cancers, more understanding of the causes, even cures. I’ll be pushing for all of that, for myself and for my daughter, regardless of our risks. Meanwhile, simple as it sounds, I’m left with one last, best choice: living my life as it comes, every day — just as I always have.
Breast Cancer Special Report
Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2007.