Earlier this year on January 5 – which happened to be my son’s 11th birthday – I received a phone call that would change my life.
In just a few moments, I went from being a 33-year-old mom, a partner, a hardworking employee and a fitness enthusiast to someone who tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, or as it’s commonly referenced, the ‘breast cancer’ gene. In just a short amount of time, I had to make one of (if not the) biggest decision I’ve ever made.
Though it has been a difficult period, on October 13, I will have a voluntary double mastectomy and reconstruction. Ironically enough, I didn’t realize it was Breast Cancer Awareness month until after I scheduled my surgery, but in honor of raising attention for this prevalent disease, I wanted to share my personal experience.
Of everything we balance in life – our family, our friends, our jobs and mundane daily tasks – it’s our health that we have to remember to prioritize above all. Without that, how can we give our best to the things that are important to us?
Here’s what I’ve been through and learned in the past nine months:
What is the BRCA Gene?
Every single one of us carries the BRCA gene – it is the tumor suppressor that helps protect us from cancer. Unfortunately my gene has a mutation in it, causing it not to function properly, and putting me at high-risk for breast cancer. This also means that when I turn 40 in seven years, I will also be high-risk for ovarian cancer. I inherited this gene from my mother – who was extremely unwell with ovarian cancer last year – and she inherited it from her father and he from his mother. And yes, that means my brothers, sister, uncles, aunts and cousins are now making decisions on their best course of action to take, too.
Not everyone chooses to get tested if their parent carries it and that is of course, a personal preference and every single person is different. My lifetime risk at the moment of having breast cancer is around 70 percent and post-surgery it will be around 2 percent, to put it into perspective how the surgery will make a difference.
Regardless if you carry a mutation of this gene or not, the average woman’s breast cancer risk is 12 percent! Pretty high huh!? This invasive procedure isn’t the only option, but you can choose to have yearly MRI’s that screens for breast cancer, in addition to self-examinations.
Why I Decided to Have Surgery
In all honesty my decision felt like a no brainer. My fiance, Tim and I help care for our joint children: my son who is 11, and Tim’s girls, who are 11 and 6. After seeing my mother so sick with the disease last year, there was not a chance in hell I want to risk putting my children and my partner through even the possibility of seeing me unwell. It was truly a traumatic experience that I am sure many of you have unfortunately experienced.
My thinking was: “If I can proactively do something about this – when at the moment I feel like a ticking time bomb – then why wouldn’t I do everything I can to eliminate the chances of my cancer bomb erupting?” Even though I say this choice was a no-brainer, I definitely have shed many (many!) tears over this decision. I have had down days and positive days, just like anyone else who is facing something life-altering.
I have never been someone who is self-conscious and have always been confident in the way I look and always been someone who is positive about most situations, but now I find myself pretty scared. Scared of not knowing what my figure will look like. Scared of what scars I will have. Scared of the operation and the post-op pain. Scared of infection afterwards or my body rejecting the material used. Scared of my nipples falling off post-op (yes, surprisingly that is a thing, although thankfully rare). Scared of what my son will feel and think the next time he gives me a cuddle after the operation. And ultimately scared that there is still the possibility of ovarian cancer to think about.
But the opposite of fear is faith, and I’m choosing to put my bravest face forward, not only for my own health but for the future happiness of those I love the most.
What Does the Surgery Entail?
For breast-risk reducing surgery, they will perform a double mastectomy, where they remove all the breast tissue and fat, and then perform the reconstruction in the same operation. There are two main types of reconstruction they offer: over the chest muscle or under the chest muscle.
Under the muscle, means after performing the mastectomy, they lift your chest pectoral muscle and place the implant under the muscle. A small piece of ADM (Acellular Dermal Matrix) is then used as a hammock at the bottom of the implant to assist the muscle in holding the implant in place.
The over the muscle procedure is slightly newer, however recovery is expected to be quicker, providing your body doesn’t reject the material. Rather than lifting your chest muscle, the implant is wrapped entirely in ADM and then placed over the muscle – it looks a bit like a ravioli! ADM is a pre-shaped porcine dermis (where all the DNA is removed), which allows the tailoring of a pocket around the implant. This is then fixed above the muscle, which is kept intact.
Over the first few months of recovery, the ADM will mesh and integrate with the skin – which is well, pretty amazing. The recovery should be faster with the over the muscle procedure, however, there are less facts about the long-term effects because it has not been around for very long. After meeting with my surgeon for the final time before my operation, I made the decision to have my surgery over the muscle.
What Recovery Will Be Like
Working at ClassPass means I naturally work out and fitness is a huge part of my life! Sadly, after my surgery, my weekly routine of exercising at our amazing studios is going out the window for a while. It can take up to 6 months to get back into full exercise mode (cue the shock and horror), so getting back on my feet is going to be tough. (And staying off of them, too!)
But I’m going to take the lessons I’ve learned from all of my fitness instructors and remember to listen to my body and take things as slow as my body needs me to go. Once I return from the procedure, I won’t be lifting anything for a week and then nothing more than a kettle for quite some time. I have had a consultation with Ten Health and Fitness, who I am looking to use to get back into shape. They have a ton of experience working with post-mastectomy and reconstruction and offer 1-on-1 sessions.
My lat’s and upper ab’s are going to be the hardest to get back into shape, so these have been my focus leading up to my surgery to make sure they are in the best shape possible pre-op! Putting that sports bra back on for the first time though will be a little nerve wrecking, to say the least.
What the Experience Has Taught Me
I am far less selfish that I ever thought I was! My family, Tim, Harry, Bella and Agnes mean so much to me and I would never want to put them through seeing someone they care about ill. I have learned the NHS are amazing and we should be grateful to have such a supportive health system in the United Kingdom – something I never really paid much attention to previously. Among everything though, life is short and can be even shorter if we don’t take care of ourselves. It is so important to take control of your life and make the right decisions for you and your family.
My decision to have risk-reducing surgery feels positive and I know I am making the right choice for mine and my family’s future. I am lucky that I have this opportunity and can do something to limit my chances. So, I can only thank all the research that has been done in the past on cancer and the BRCA mutations, had it not been for this I would not have the power to get to this before it gets to me.
This is a battle I will win before I have had to fight it. See you on the other side!
Editor’s note: To learn more about testing for the breast cancer gene and other genetic indications of cancer risk, Cancer.org has many resources. As always, if you are concerned about your health, schedule an appointment with your primary physician.