“I want you to get genetic testing to determine your risk for cancer,” my mother said.
Lunches with her used to be enjoyable. I’d talk about my latest tattoo or piercing. She’d innocently invite me to church. Then I hit middle age and she started eating dinner at 4 p.m.; now our talks often take a turn toward the morose.
End of life plans. Who will and will not be invited to whose funeral. The benefits of fiber.
Her sister, my aunt, was diagnosed with uterine cancer last year. She’s been in remission since November. At some point, these two hens started worrying about the next generation and decided I’d be the first for genetic testing.
Something to do with nerves of steel, sense of humor. Whatever.
Sign me up. I like to know more, rather than less, about everything so I called my local cancer center and made the appointment. They couldn’t see me for six months. Apparently genetic testing is a lot like the new Apple Watch – trendy with an end result that could seriously suck.
The test itself is only a blood draw, but beforehand the counselor wants a detailed family medical history. This is a fun conversation, with charts and everything. First we discussed mom’s side of the family — where large hips, strong jaws, and mean streaks reign supreme.
Dad’s side was a bit more complex.
I hardly knew the man and his family is a complete mystery. Bio Dad had two aunts who died of breast cancer. His brother was still alive, according to recent mug shots, as well as that brother’s son. I don’t have any contact with them. Court orders, and all.
The genetics counselor didn’t have a form for my particular situation, so they took blood and sent me on my way.
Last week, we reunited to discuss results.
I have an elevated risk for breast cancer, they told me, nearly double the risk of the regular population.
I took a deep breath. Like when I’m in Wal-Mart’s parking lot at 2 a.m. in desperate need of feminine products. There’s a slight sense of dread over what could happen, but I didn’t know enough yet to be truly alarmed.
This didn’t freak me out. I have an elevated risk for lots of things — heart disease, macular degeneration, punching people. Yet here I am: disease-free, able to read warning labels on fireworks and I have practically no restraining orders against me. Plus…combine this with incredible cheekbones and now I have TWO things in common with Angelina Jolie.
On the other hand, a genetic predisposition to breast cancer is not good news.
Word spreads quickly in my family, especially when it comes to imagined tragedy. I received numerous calls and texts expressing sympathy. Too bad I’m off Facebook; there are at least a dozen prayer circles calling my name. I’m hearing lots of thoughts about prophylactic mastectomies – the removal of breasts to reduce the risk of cancer.
Everyone has an opinion about my breasts. I almost started a Twitter conversation to keep it all straight: #shouldtheystayorshouldtheygonow.
For the first time in over 26 years together, my husband fixed himself a drink.
More testing is in order. My risk goes up or stays the same depending on what happens with mom.
If she tests positive, then I inherited the gene from her. Finally, we have something in common. Since breast cancer isn’t really a thing on her side, my risk stays put. I’ll have to feel myself up more often every month and add MRIs to the yearly mammogram treat, but that’s about all for now.
If mom tests negative, then I inherited the gene from Bio Dad.
Along with a forehead that makes drive-in theatres jealous.
Inheriting the gene from his side of the family is problematic because there aren’t enough female relatives in Bio Dad’s branches to know my risk factors. Besides me and my sister, there aren’t any women at all.
The counselor waved her pen over all the blank spaces and said, “So this side of the family…”
“Is as useless as they’ve always been,” I said.
If Bio Dad’s parents had given birth to a girl, or his brother a daughter, not only would Michelob have more customers, we’d also know a lot more. According to the counselor, if they’d lived cancer-free my risk would stay the same. If these imaginary women had been diagnosed with breast cancer? My risk could be as high as 50 percent.
But they don’t exist. So we don’t know.
When mom gets her results back – I’ll decide what to do.
Until then, I’ve started walking around the house announcing, “Elevated risk for cancer here. I’m going to need you to go ahead and cook your own goddamn supper.”
“Turns out we do need to see Swan Lake as a family. Because I might lose my breasts.”
You get the idea.
Prophylactic mastectomies are a big deal. So is cancer. #shouldtheystayorshouldtheygonow?
Catherine Durkin Robinson co-parents twin sons, organizes families for political purposes, writes syndicated columns, mentors kids, runs a few races and investigates missing socks. Follow her on Twitter: @cdurkinrobinson. Column courtesy of Context Florida.