(My kiddo needs his mum)

I’ve never talked so much about breasts as I have over the past month or so, not even when I was a nursing mom. You see, I’ve recently made rather a major decision regarding my breasts. My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was 16 and died when I was 19, she was 52. My grandmother has also died of ovarian cancer at a rather young age.

My mum’s oncologist was a formidable, forthright and strong woman named Dr. Joan Murphy. Over the course of our mom’s treatment, she had grown quite close with our family, something she usually avoided. Mum was an enigmatic woman and it was pretty hard for anyone to not fall in love with her. She was as brave, strong and loving as you can imagine. Dr. Murphy spoke at her funeral about how she had promised to watch out for us girls.

Shortly after the funeral Dr. Murphy contacted our family and explained that she was involved in researching a genetic mutation she believed our mum had that was linked to her cancer. I agreed to have the testing done. I spent a day at Princess Margaret hospital, being shuffled from room to room, speaking with genetic counselors, doctors and nurses before they did the blood work. They took extensive medical histories, tracking the cancers that seemed to run through both families. By the time the nurse found a vein in my notoriously tricky arm I was already convinced that I would be a carrier of the genetic mutation. I was not wrong. It was about a month before the results came in and confirmed that I was indeed a carrier of the BRCA mutation. I remember sitting in a counsellor’s office and hearing statistics being rattled off. Significantly elevated risks of developing breast and ovarian cancers throughout my life, as well as slightly increased risk of melanoma. All I could think about were the hours I had spent getting too much sun at my best friend’s cottage the previous summer. It would turn out that melanoma was the least of my worries.

I was 19 and was hurt and angry because my mom had died and because I had a terrible relationship with my dad. He had been so focused on saving mum that he had kind of forgotten that he was a parent. It was all just a horrible mess and so I thought, ‘Well, f*** it. Obviously I’m doomed to die young so who gives a shit?” With this mindset, I made some terrible financial decisions, I partied way too hard, and I got myself into some really messy and awful situations.

A preventative mastectomy was first presented to me as an option when I was 25 years old and still very much a bitter angry young woman. I told the doctor he was insane and that I was young and had no intention of mutilating my body because of something that MIGHT happen. My mum had died of ovarian cancer as did her mum and I was convinced that if anything was going to get me it would be my ovaries.

The author and her kiddo. Photo courtesy of SUE LITTLETON

Many years later and things have clearly changed. I have a child who means the world to me. I have a career that is exciting and I get to work with some of the most creative and engaged people in this city. Moving to Hamilton five years ago was the catalyst for real change in my life. Leaving the negativity behind in Toronto and embracing the excitement and positivity I have found here has been life changing.

Realizing recently that knowing about my risks is a blessing and not a death sentence has empowered me to make the difficult decision to go ahead with preventative surgeries.

Seeing my dear, fierce friend Lisa conquering breast cancer this year definitely played a roll in making this decision. A double mastectomy may sound drastic but if it essentially eliminates my risk then it is so worth it. My kiddo is six years old and he needs me to be here for a good long time yet. I spent my 20s seeing this mutation as a curse (which, let’s be honest, it kind of is) and I was convinced that nothing really mattered because I would be dead by 50 anyway. That kind of nihilist thinking is no longer an option. I don’t want my kiddo to suffer the pain that my sister and I did. Watching both of our parents die of cancer before either of us were 30 is a pain I wouldn‘t wish on my worst enemy let alone my beloved boy .

I am so incredibly blessed with marvellous friends and a community that has been humblingly supportive. I am confident that this is the best decision for me to make and I’m sharing it with you to help start some real conversations about women’s health. We need to do more than slap a pink ribbon on a coffee cup at the dollar store. My surgery is scheduled for a few weeks from now, and while I’m a little terrified, I feel strong and incredibly optimistic.