When I found out four years ago that I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, I wasn’t surprised. I knew chances were high because my mom and many members of her family have it too. And while I’m 55 percent to 65 percent more likely to get breast cancer than someone who doesn’t have the BRCA1 gene [according to the National Cancer Institute], it’s not a death sentence.
For me, testing positive at age 24 just made my desire to have kids more urgent. Because BRCA1 also predisposes me to ovarian cancer (more so than the other mutation, BRCA2), I decided to go through IVF and freeze my eggs. That way, if I do get ovarian cancer and have to remove the whole shebang (my ovaries and fallopian tubes), at least I’ll already have those frozen embryos should I need them.
When I went through IVF, 12 of the 17 eggs fertilized ended up carrying BRCA1. So odds are high that if I got pregnant naturally the fetus would carry the mutation. Based on that, some people have asked if I would terminate a natural pregnancy. And the answer is, absolutely not.
Frankly, if my mom thought that way, I wouldn’t exist. She waited until giving birth to her fourth child, my youngest brother, to have her ovaries removed as a precaution. I’ve decided not to have mine removed.
Having the gene doesn’t make me feel like a ticking time bomb. It’s actually frustrating when people make that assumption. The best thing my gynecologist ever did was look me squarely in the eye and say, “If you play by the rules, you won’t die from breast cancer.”
What are the rules? Getting screenings four times a year and giving yourself regular checkups.
So, yes, I could be superdramatic every three months when I go in for a sonogram or a breast check because I am being “confronted by my mortality.” But I choose not to live my life like that. If I’m nervous, I try to turn doctor visits into more exciting rituals by meeting my mom for breakfast beforehand or lunch afterward.
Knowing that I carry BRCA1 has given me confidence that, if I ever do get breast cancer, I will catch it really early. We often feel as if we’re at the mercy of our doctors because they understand so much more about our health than we do. But by screening for cancer more often, I feel that I’m taking back control over my body.
—As told to Shalayne Pulia