When Good Genes Fail
I had good genes, or so I thought. It was something I always relied upon. In my giant extended Ashkenazi Jewish family, cancer was conspicuously missing. Longevity was in my bloodlines, that of my parents and my grandparents. While I feared a great many things (autism, SIDS, car accidents, and the over-achiever’s classic: FAILURE), breast cancer was never one of them. Growing up, my family was very close to another family whose wife and four daughters carried the BRCA gene. When I was in medical school, their wonderful oldest daughter died of the disease in her thirties, leaving four young children behind. Their tragedy had always been unfathomable to me, so completely “other.” Over the following years, I became a surgeon and a wife and mother of three beautiful little girls.
Then, one day, it was me… sucker punched by the “Big C.” How did this happen? Where did this come from? How the hell could I manage my hectic, carefully constructed life when someone just pulled the stabilizing Jenga piece out from under me. But, we all rise to the occasion. There is no choice. The life around us continues, the needs of our husband and children and our will to live pulls us forward like the tide.
Once I started down the long path of surgery and chemo and radiation (I had Stage 3C advanced cancer), I started noticing that being a knowledgeable doctor did not spare me from the physical, emotional and psychological challenges. Rather than ignoring them, I began to pay attention. There were certain annoying details and steps that no one ever talked about. “Do armpits really change after lymph node dissection?” I wondered aloud in the shower. Well, if they did, no one ever discussed it with me.
Some moments were just ridiculous. Did I really have to crash the Housing Department Christmas party looking all “cancer-patient-y” just to get the site plans approved for my house?
The answer to both the questions above was, “yes.” But, these are the things no one ever tells you about breast cancer.
So, I wrote things down. I lugged my computer everywhere, black and grey strap dangling from my right, non-radiated, non-dissected shoulder. I began to recognize and record all the funny, ironic and informative stories within the framework of my big sad tale. It was cathartic, gave me an outlet and sometimes even amusing. And, when it was all over, I mean almost all of the myriad of treatments and reconstructive steps, I spent another year really intensively writing down the rest. I wanted to create a comprehensive, easily readable, relatable account to guide others. Kind of A Girlfriends Guide to Divorce for breast cancer. Not just for the patients, but for their friends and families, or for anyone slapped in the face by the adversity of this kind of disease. It was a labor of love and a laying on the line of my personal privacy in exchange for something greater.
But the book was just the beginning of my next chapter. I heard about Sharsheret from a friend and was connected with one of their social workers who listened to my story, provided me with very practical advice, and inspired me to become a Sharsheret Peer Supporter. Through Sharsheret, I am now able to be matched with other young women who are facing similar diagnoses, concerns, experiences. I’m really excited to start connecting and sharing with other women who can relate to what I’m living with on a daily basis.