It’s Like Baptism by Firehose

Wednesday – 4/15/2020

Yesterday, my doctor called and said that the biopsy was negative—it was a benign tumor in my right breast. That poor little thing that currently looks like it has gone a few rounds with a heavyweight champion last week. It took 24 hours for the site to stop bleeding. Weird that it was a tumor. I’d always had cysts before.

“But what about the genetic test?” I asked. Last month, before all the stay-at-home memes and viral posts popped up, I was at my OB/GYN for my super fun annual! It’s like a carnival once you turn 40 and get that awesome bonus exam. And when I let Dr. VK know that my dad had been recently diagnosed with a BRCA-2 gene mutation, he wasted no time in telling me to go straight to the lab for a blood draw.

Why so serious? Because BRCA is short for BReast CAncer. And that pesky 2 at the end meant that it was the hereditary kind. On my way to the lab, I asked my mom if the genetic counselor could send a copy of Dad’s report to Dr. VK. I joked that I probably would be one of the kids to inherit it, since I’d inherited his hereditary high cholesterol levels and her dense tissue breasts. Of course, I’d be the 50% that would get the mutated gene.

Oh, what’s that, you say? Mutated? Yep. Because the gene has to be EXTRA.

And when I asked for my genetic results, I hoped my joking had been that—a big joke. It wasn’t.

“You have the same genetic mutation as your dad,” he said. Dr. VK has been a great doctor for me. He doesn’t mind questions and is proactive. And he kept talking, but I didn’t hear the words he was saying. At all. His voice was kinda like the Peanuts teacher, distorted and ongoing, while I melted into an ugly cry at my work desk. In front of a coworker.

I came back into the conversation when he said, “You’ll probably hang up the phone and think, ‘Crap, I should’ve asked this or that.’ And that’s normal. Just write down your questions and call me. Okay?”

“Okay.” It wasn’t okay. It was miles from okay. I’d read my dad’s report from the genetic counselor. I had a massive probability to get breast cancer. Scratch that—I HAVE a massive probability. Some scientists put it at 87%. And I’d already lost the biggest bet.

“I’m going to call over to the surgeon in town and get you in on a referral. Okay?”

“Okay.” What was happening? And then my brain caught up. “I don’t have cancer yet. So I’m ahead of the curve on this.”

“That’s exactly how you need to look at this right now. Call me with your questions. Okay?”

“Okay.” I had no other response. My coworker paused in my door. “I shouldn’t be surprised,” I whispered. “But I am.”

“Call your husband.”

“Okay.” I stood up to walk outside. At least the new gal wouldn’t overhear me. “I don’t want to have to tell my mom and dad.” My tears rolled and rolled and rolled.

It was by sheer providence that Dad’s cancer was discovered. He had a heart attack and the chest x-ray revealed a tiny slice of what turned out to be stage 4 cancer. For the longest time, they classified it as “lung cancer,” because true to Dad’s nature, it wasn’t “normal” cancer. It was a tumor in his chest cavity. He went through chemo and meds. And when the local oncologist said, “Can’t do anything else, enjoy the last few months of your life,” my mom the nurse reached out to UC Davis. Guess what? Dad was the candidate they needed. Turns out it’s not lung cancer at all. It’s that disease causing BRCA.

Mom didn’t go to college until after I’d graduated high school. She raised four kids and then became a nurse. A good one. One who helped me understand some of my husband’s medical issues. One who advocated for my dad.

The thought of telling them that I had indeed inherited BRCA-2 was dreadful. It was one less thing they needed.

My husband was a pro. He was at work, too. I knew I’d fall apart the minute I saw him later in the day, so I let him know that I’d call my parents next, followed by my sister and brother.

When Dad answered the phone, he said, “Pam’s answering service.” Because everyone usually calls for Mom anyways. I think I got through, “Hey Dad,” before I started sobbing again. Because I knew what the results meant. I’d been a curious creature after Dad’s report and read up on it. Women with positive BRCA-2 gene mutations usually get a prophylactic double mastectomy and their ovaries removed. Grand, right? Because, by the way, that’s another type of cancer this gene causes.

“Hang on, hang on, hang on,” Dad chanted and yelled for my mom.

I told her. And she was a bit argumentative with me. She said my chances were smaller since I’d breastfed. I told her she was wrong, that was for non-hereditary. She said it didn’t mean that I’d get cancer. I reminded her that Dad’s report said it was up to 87% chance and I wasn’t interested. She insisted on getting a second opinion before the surgeries. I agreed but reiterated that I already decided to get them, the percentages were just too high. She didn’t agree. But it was okay.

Years ago, I learned that people process differently to B.F.D. = Big Fat Deals. Whether it’s cancer diagnosis or death, there is a giant gambit of not only emotional but physical responses.

Talked with my older sister next. She lives 7.5 hours away and was also at work. I asked her to step outside. She listened and said she’d call me later.

Next up was my brother. He processed differently and talked a lot.

I cried a lot.

Reminded everyone that I was ahead of the curve. I have no cancer right now. Reminded myself every time I said it.

Every.Time.

Mom called me back. “Ask for a copy of your report.” I called Dr. VK’s office and ended up having to drive up and pick it up in person. My heart broke for the pregnant ladies entering and exiting without their partners, who juggled kids in their minivans. COVID has messed up everything. My report was at the front desk, and I tried to thank her for handing it to me, but ended up bawling again. I will think of single women differently in an OB/GYN office now. They might be like me, waiting for the results.

I waited until I got to my car to look at the paper. A single sheet, double-sided, with my name on it. The same string of letters and numbers that matched Dad’s. It made me sob. My oldest daughter called, “Where are you? I’m at your work with a smoothie.”

Three minutes later, I kept my sunglasses on to hide my red, puffy eyes. It ended up being my lunch since my stomach was an absolute basketcase.

My hubby and I decided to tell our kids right away. They’ve been in the know since day one about my dad. That’s what happens when you live next door to your parents.

The heaviest part of it all is knowing that both of my beautiful, cherished daughters have the same 50% chance with this vicious gene mutation. That … it’s a lot to ponder. It took us YEARS for our oldest to be born. And our younger was a blessed surprise after the doctor said we’d probably only have one. I have to banish falling into a rabbit hole of despair that they may have this. It’s not a death sentence, but I’m learning how much I’ve changed in less than 48 hours.

How so? I am a roller coaster of emotions. Finding applicable information is hard. I’ll have to eventually decide if I want breast reconstruction. I do. I don’t. I change my mind often. And looking for actual stories of how recovery goes borderlines superficial. It doesn’t, really, but I want someone to tell me what will happen.

Through this whole thing, calling a few close friends and telling them, is a constant reminder of God’s mercy. I found out about this mutation before I was diagnosed with cancer. That’s such a huge leap and gives me time for consultations and to ponder options. Time is something God gave me that others don’t have. There is the internet, chalk full of junk, but with tidbits of useful information. It gives me time to talk with the girls and talk them through the fact that they’ll need to test and how I’ll pray through their results.

Today I woke up know that I have a BRCA-2 gene mutation. It made me sad. And I made a secret Pinterest board with things like clothing I’ll need after surgeries and fake boobies. After my shower, I looked at my bruised and battered breast and started the long goodbye. I wonder how awful I will look after the mastectomies. I hope after my ovaries are removed that the surgically induced menopause isn’t ridiculous hard.

I’m praying for wisdom for the decisions I have to make and for comfort for my family as they see me struggle and fight my thoughts.

Leaning heavily into God on this one. For now, I’m writing for the woman who’s at step one with me: diagnosis of impending doom and peril, with a chance of a flat chest and menopause.

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