Until a few years ago breast cancer was just something that happened to other people. Unfortunately in the last 1-2 years it became a daily reality. First when a cousin of mine got breast cancer at 34 after giving birth to her second son. Less than a month ago my beloved mother-in-law passed away from HER2-positive breast cancer, an aggressive form of it. She was 59. An active, full of life, joyous and now – gone. A year prior my husband’s half-sister passed away from cervical cancer at the age of 41.
My mother in law did not accept or even realize fully that she has cancer. The metastatic damage to her body was too rapid and it is unknown if it could even be reversed if diagnosed properly or on time. I must disclose that she passed away in Russia where the approach to cancer and diagnosis is somewhat (some might say more than somewhat) outdated and inconsistent. Having said that, I am not sure if the outcome might have been any different if she was in Canada, for many reasons – the first being the form of cancer and its aggressiveness.
My cousin’s cancer was a different story. 2 years after being diagnosed she is what we now call a cancer ‘survivor’. She had some breast pain while breastfeeding that she and everyone around her attributed to engorgement. When she finally mentioned it to her doctor half a year after giving birth, he decided to run some tests. Turns out she had stage 3 cancer that needed to be treated immediately with chemo, surgery and radiation.
She also found out that she is the carrier of a BRCA1 gene which makes her predisposed to cancer and if she got it once there is a very high chance she will get it again. After her mother got tested for the gene it turned out that she actually inherited the gene from her father who in turn inherited it from his mother who never had cancer in her long 83 year old life. She is still cancer free to this day.
My cousin decided to get full double mastectomy with breast reconstruction. For her it was a matter of life and death and she took the decision momentarily. I talked to her prior to the surgery and she was very sure about her decision to never have to face cancer treatments again. Somebody said that prevention was far less and scary than treatment and they were right.
She went through radiation and she is now as good as new with a pair of round new DD’s with her nipple and skin intact and two diagonal scars to remind her that she is stronger than she thought she could be.
Needless to say that reading about the actress Angeline Jolie going public with her decision to have a double mastectomy hit close to home. The pain of loss we are processing through together with my cousin’s success story brought to light feelings of admiration for Angelina’s bravery and feelings of sympathy for her pain of losing her 56 year old mother to cancer back in 2008.
Some expressed opinions stating that Angelina shouldn’t have went public with her surgery because it was a private matter or that we, as a public, shouldn’t discuss it because it is again a private matter. My take on it is very different.
What is the point of keeping things that can help other’s private? Isn’t that taking away from her decision and its benefits? I think Angelina made the best decision for herself and her family and she should be celebrated for it and for the fact that she again, like many times before, had the guts to share it with the world regardless of its opinions of her is amazing. I wouldn’t expect anything less from her.
Angelina’s genetic mapping showed 87% chance of developing breast cancer. 87% chance is very high. I hear people say that “she could have not gotten it but the breasts are gone already”. Have you stopped to think that her chance of getting the cancer was 6 times higher than not getting it? I believe that taking the risk and not having the operation would have been far more irresponsible.
Angelina is a sex symbol and many women draw inspiration from her. I think it is of paramount importance that she talked to women about undergoing this surgery and still feeling sexy after. There are women going through the procedure as we speak and it is important someone like Angelina who built her career on being sexy that you can still be and feel attractive.
Many doctors who treat breast cancer say that the real problem is that not enough women who carry the BRCA mutations are aware of the fact they even exist. In Canada, testing for BRCA mutations is widely covered, although experts agree that access to treatment may not be equitable in all provinces and in some remote or rural geographic areas. Women who meet certain criteria, such as a close family history of breast and ovarian cancer, would receive the gene test.
Brad Pitt says it was important for his partner, Angelina Jolie, to share her story about having her breasts removed to avoid cancer “and that others would understand it doesn’t have to be a scary thing.” Cancer is a scary thing for all of us; even those who never experienced it up close. We tend to avoid thinking about things that scare us and this avoidance might be our biggest challenge when faced with life and its hardships. Not thinking about cancer and not preventing it won’t make it go away.
My mother in law never got tested because she was scared to find out the truth. One of the last things she told my husband was that she is scared to admit that her disease is true. I wish she wasn’t that scared.
Alisa Fulshtinsky is the founder of Toronto Mommies, a Toronto REALTOR and a happily married mother of 1.