Four simple letters. Four simple letters that can mean nothing to the world. To a person, four simple letters can become the world. Four simple letters which if you let get inside your head, may destroy you. Four simple letters that can change the way people look at you. But these four simple letters also allow you to improve your situation, rather than staying silent and letting your fate override you.
The BRCA gene – abbreviation for the BReast CAncer gene – is ordinarily a tumour suppressor gene which all women are born with. It prevents our cells from growing or dividing too rapidly, repairing and restoring damaged DNA. However, women who carry a mutation in their BRCA gene have approximately a 70% chance of having breast cancer in their lifetime. Less than 10% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a BRCA gene mutation. My mother, aunties, grandmother and previous generations of relatives were born with this mutation. Unfortunately, my granny and aunty found out too late.
The cancer arrived to tell my granny that she was not good enough. That she was not good enough to carry on her life. That she was not good enough to see her grandchildren grow up. That she would have to suffer through intense sessions on chemotherapy, radiation and to undergo an operation to remove the tumour. My granny fought determinedly for it to leave but it wouldn’t; it wanted to see her suffer. After months and months of fighting and feeling sick and losing hair, she finally won – my granny became a breast cancer survivor.
Less than a year later, it came back to haunt my family. This time it was not my granny who was targeted but rather her daughter. That’s when it hit everyone – how can two people in the same family be diagnosed with breast cancer in such a short time? Appointment after appointment, blood test after blood test, waiting anxiously in the doctor’s room, my granny and aunty discovered the confirmation of their treacherous sickness – they have the BRCA gene mutation.
I went with my mom to her doctor’s appointment – genetic counselling – where the doctor explained to her what the mutation is and what it means for her future as a woman when she undergoes a double mastectomy and hysterectomy to prevent the risk of cancer. My mom had fear all over her as she did not want to undergo invasive surgery which would, in her opinion, rob her very essence of womanhood. I tried calming her down by helping her see the positive in having the mutation – even though I, myself, was petrified. After the appointment, my mom was convinced that she would not be tested for the mutation – that if she gets cancer it is part of her fate and that there’s nothing that she can do about it. This frightened me as the woman I looked up to and taught me to never give up had decided to give up. She decided to let fate rule over her and destroy the chances of her living a healthy future. I felt troubled as I could not understand the harm of having the blood test, however, I was just a sixteen-year-old girl who did not comprehend the risks of finding out such significant information. After a great deal of contemplation, my dad and I convinced my mom that it is fate she has the opportunity to determine if she is a BRCA carrier and privileged to seek intervention to sustain her longevity. That afternoon she went to have the blood test.
Several weeks later.
The news arrived.
The suspense and apprehension neared its end.
The moment of truth.
Nervous and anxious.
Her heart skipped. Her body numb. My mom entered complete shock as she tried to reconcile why G-d would burden her with such an awful mutation. She could not understand what she did to deserve this mutation. She began to let these four simple letters – BRCA – get inside her head. Was it going to destroy her?
I felt sick and nauseous when my parents gathered me and my three brothers around the kitchen table to tell us the news. I began to lose hope as I often prayed that my mom would not have the BRCA mutation and that I would not be at risk of also having it. I was scared that the people around me would judge her and change the way they look at her all because of one small mutation in her gene that can only be viewed microscopically. I was afraid the same would happen to me. My mom often gave up hope but was reminded by her doctor that there is life after BRCA and this mutation does not define who you are.
After many consultations with different doctors, trying to hear different perspectives and procedures which could be considered to treat and rid the body of it and about the adverse impact of complacency my mom decided to win and elected to have a double mastectomy followed by a hysterectomy, a 99% probability and 90% probability, respectively, to prevent the growth of cancer.
After my mom had her operation, I would reflect on the profound impact this mutation has had on my family. Recovery was protracted; my mom suffered greatly as a huge part of her femininity has been taken away from her. She also suffered from a complication which made her feel extremely sick and regret having this operation. After an extensive period of recovery, my mom feels lucky and grateful for this operation and that she does not have to worry about developing breast cancer. My whole family’s view on BRCA has changed. We believe that it has given us the opportunity to stand up against our destiny and to change the circumstance that we have been put in, rather than letting it defeat us all.
After seeing everything that my family has been through in the last year, “the way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.” Some people’s miracle is waking up every morning, or getting a new baby sibling that will change their life forever but for me, my miracle is that I am able to check if I have the BRCA gene mutation as I believe that having the mutation allows you to make choices to ensure you live a healthier life as it decreases your risk of producing cancer and sustain longevity.
Four simple letters. Four simple letters that can mean nothing to the world. Four simple letters that can become the world to someone. Four simple letters which if you let get inside your head, will destroy you. Four simple letters that can change the way people look at you. But these four simple letters also allow you to confront your impediment, rather than staying silent and letting your fears, inhibitions and vanity override you.