Saturday, July 29, 2017

My Ripped Genes

A couple of weeks ago, my doctor called me and told me I’m going to die.  Well, maybe.  I might die.  I could die.  It’s possible. No, actually, it’s certain.  I’m going to die.

So are you, by the way.  If no one’s told you yet, I’m sorry to be the one, but knowledge is power, so they say.  So, now that you know, you’re in control.  But, you can’t change the fact that you’re going to die.  That is an absolute.  There are ways though, I’m learning for you to decrease your likelihood of dying young.  Like don’t pick up a heroin addiction, when given the choice, opt for the turkey burger, and don’t text and drive.

There are a slew of other things that increase your chances of living a longer life.  I cannot possibly list them all, but here are a few things to get you started:

Drink one cup of coffee every day, but no more than three.
Drink one glass of red wine every day, but no more than two, three if you’re a man (of course, men!)
Wear nothing less than SPF 30 and reapply midday.
Wear your seatbelt.
Drink water.
Get married.
Avoid stress.
If your marriage is stressful, get divorced.
If your divorce is stressful, drink, but not too much!  Refer to point 2.
Take an Epsom salts bath on occasion.
A multivitamin is good too.
Sleep.  Soundly.  For eight hours every night.
Eat a Mediterranean diet.  Omega-3’s.  Omega-3’s.  Omega-3’s.
Oh, and antioxidants.  Find some of those.  Those are good too.

Another good thing to do is to have someone examine your family history of cancer and then take a close look at your genetic code.

I did this recently, on a whim, and was surprised to discover that my code is broken.  I mean we’re all broken, right?  Really we are.  Everybody has some kind of damage to their DNA.  It’s part of life.  My DNA is broken in a very specific spot on the BRCA 1 gene.  They call this a mutation and my mutant gene happens to put me at a fairly scary risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer.  The lifetime risk for those of us with this gene mutation is as high as 87% for breast cancer and 50% for ovarian cancer.  I’m not great with numbers, but I got a little sweaty when I heard those. I prefer the single digits personally.  Anything much higher than ten and I have to reach for my calculator.  So, 87% basically sounded to me like I had cancer now or that if I didn’t have it today, I would likely have it tomorrow when I woke up.  87% sounded to me like I needed to start writing letters to my children.

But then, it didn’t.  Then, and I guess a psychologist might call this the “denial phase,” it started to sound like fear propaganda.  My neighbors have signs in their yard that say, “Science is real,” but is it really real?  I mean for real, real?  And even if it is, what about that 13%?  That lucky 13%?  That could be me!  Knowledge is power they say, but they also say ignorance is bliss and I prefer to hike in the woods rather than stay back just in case there happens to be a bear.  That’s just no way to live.  I wish I’d never taken that stupid test.  I could be blissfully watching Season 2 of Shameless right now, rather than scanning the internet for cancer sites.

But alas, I do scan for cancer sites.  It’s become a new hobby of mine and I’m getting quite an education.  It turns out the chances of me happening upon a cancer bear in the woods ARE in fact 87%, and not just like a cute little cub, but a big, hungry bear that will eat me fast—a triple negative bear to be exact.  And that 50% for ovarian cancer?  Well, that’s a bear that I likely won’t see until my neck is in his jaw.

So, these are things I think about a lot lately, and truth be told, they’ve got me a little worked up.  Try avoiding stress and sleeping that sound eight hours of sleep at night after someone tells you you have a time bomb strapped to your chest AND your pelvis and it’s any man’s guess when they’re going to go off.

And the more people I talk to, the more I begin to understand that cancer is a very real thing.  And those who have not died from it, have suffered greatly from it, including another woman named Jill whom I met last weekend at a support group for people who have this gene mutation.

Jill has three boys (sound familiar?).  She got breast cancer when her youngest was a baby.  It was so hard.  I could see it in her face and hear it in her voice.  She wished she had had the knowledge I have now.  Another woman had had breast cancer three times.  She was so hurt and angry.  She sat next to me and her pain was hot.  It filled the room.  Yet another, older woman shared her grief.  Breast cancer is even harder when you’re older, she said, and you already have trouble doing so many things due to age.  She showed me her scars without shame, and then she smiled at me.  The smile of a woman who’s still alive to tell her story.

My Aunt Kathy was not so lucky.  My Aunt Kathy, my dad’s little sister, was just 36 when she died.  Her breast cancer was rare and aggressive.  By the time she found the lump and they went in for the mastectomy, the cancer was already stage 4.  My cousins, her children, were four and seven.  I can still see my cousin Andrew kneeling over her at the wake, not wanting to leave her side.  I was ten.  I don’t remember much more than that.  I just remember that she was beautiful and young and so, so beloved.

So, the thing is it is absolutely 100% certain that I’m going to die.  Eventually.  But, maybe, if this science stuff really is real and I continue to wear my seatbelt, eat salmon regularly and have my breasts and ovaries removed, maybe I can put off death for a few more decades.  There’s no guarantee.  I could get bit by the wrong mosquito or get on the wrong plane or even walk under the wrong icy tree branch at the exact moment that the weight just gets too heavy for it to bare.

But what are the odds of those things happening?  It’s just not realistic for me to try and prevent everything that could cause my untimely death, but maybe it is realistic for me to remove my high risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.  Maybe I’ve been given a lifeline that so many others wish they had had before it’s breathing down my neck, before my neck is in its jaw, before I feel the pain that comes from something that’s over way too soon.

And so I’m worried, yes, and still pretty shocked and thrown and adjusting to this new stuff I know, but I’m also grateful, grateful for the chance to consider cancer before it considers me.
And grateful for all the cancer survivors and previvors who share their stories.  I may not be great with numbers, but their stories resonate with me and every story I hear or read is gradually woven into me in a way that may shape or change my own storyline, perhaps even extend it by a few extra chapters, which could be the best chapters, written with an extra careful hand that realizes now just how delicate the thin pages really are.

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