In her New York Times op-ed, Angelina Jolie Pitt shared what she learned during her five days of waiting for critical cancer tests. She said,
“The beautiful thing about such moments in life is that there is so much clarity. You know what you live for and what matters. It is polarizing, and it is peaceful.”
In waiting, she told herself,
“To stay calm, to be strong, and that I had no reason to think I wouldn't live to see my children grow up and to meet my grandchildren.”
Reading Mrs. Pitt's op-ed words in the NY Times this morning, I cried. I fought it, but I still cried - my BRCA cancer experience is still close to the surface. I focus on the silver linings, such as the “clarity.” Facing the idea of a shorten time frame on your lifespan, you're brought to know deep in your bones “what you live for and what matters.”
BRCA mutation carriers face an unprecedented personal threat of cancer and our family experience is filled with it too. We ride a cancer roller coaster - tests, anxiety, epiphanies, and, at times, sorrow and loss. How lucky we are that eloquent, compassionate and wise Mrs. Pitt is here with us as a generous and unofficial spokesperson. For me personally, in moments when I feel sadness for the female body parts I've lost and the harsh treatments my body has endured in exchange for life, her stunning beauty and femininity are a comfort, an example, and a support. It’s not an easy journey and it would be more difficult without her.
This morning her words land on "a good day" and yet I still tear up. It's been almost a year since I was thrown into a second menopause by the surgery she just had. It's been less than a year since I finished the last part of "The Cancer Year" – the "scorched earth" chemo followed by the bilateral mastectomy with lymph node removal in both armpits and then, four months later, breast reconstruction surgery, all to treat two BRCA breast cancer tumors. Unlike Mrs. Pitt's mastectomy, mine came with chemo and lymph node surgery because I didn't know in advance that I carried the BRCA gene. Kudos to her for knowing - and for acting preemptively - based on our 87% lifetime risk of breast cancer. Good choice sister.
Genetic information is a life and death issue for many, including BRCA mutation carriers and our families. My working, professional nurse grandmother, who proudly served in WWI, died at exactly my current age. I think I might have gotten my BRCA mutation from her. In retrospect, my doctors think that she probably died of ovarian cancer. In her photographs, there are parts of her that look like me but I never met my grandmother. She died with her abdomen full of cancer before I was born. Mrs. Pitt, ovarian cancer will not keep you from meeting your grandchildren (teared again as I typed that sentence). BRCA ovaries and fallopian tubes are frightening. It's good when they don't have cancer.
My Stanford BRCA cancer specialist said that the experts guess that every person alive has around six "bad genes" that put them at risk for serious illnesses like cancer. She comforted me that we BRCA mutation carriers just happen to know one of our "bad genes." As scientists and doctors learn more about these genes, everyone will eventually face the sort of decisions that the BRCA community faces now. We are the "canary in the mine shaft" because one of our bad genes was so obviously bad.
Angelina, I’m so glad your ovaries and tubes came back without cancer. I know what that wait is like. I, too, had a “benign” ovarian tumor and a pre-surgery scare. Thank goodness for “benign.” May we cross our fingers that the rest of our lives are cancer free. I’ll pray for you and the rest of our BRCA mutation family. At least we know.
To learn more about the BRCA mutation and what it means, click here to visit the FORCE site. FORCE stands for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered and FORCE is the BRCA community's advocacy organization that helped me navigate the shocking process of going from BRCA cancer patient to cancer survivor and proactive BRCA mutation carrier.