black women's health Breast Cancer ovarian cancer Reproductive Health
Why I Chose to Fight Cancer by Removing My Ovaries4/28/2015
by Brenda's Child As I watched Angelina Jolie make the news once again for her “heroic” decision to undergo another surgery to elimina...
by Brenda's Child
As I watched Angelina Jolie make the news once again for her “heroic” decision to undergo another surgery to eliminate her chance of developing ovarian cancer, I thought, “This is a big deal, but she’s not the only hero.” What I mean by this is that people do what Angelina has done all the time, but no one pays attention because they aren’t a movie star, sex symbol, or poster woman for a thousand humanitarian organizations.
I know women make this choice, because the women in my family have been doing so for over 10 years—including myself.
My mother died of breast cancer at only 23 years old. With my father having recently become a paraplegic, my maternal grandmother raised me and my sister for nine years. Growing up, I didn’t understand what it meant to grow up motherless because my grandmother did such a fantastic job. She unfortunately died of ovarian cancer on Christmas day at the age of 57. This left our family still intact, but devastated and living in constant fear of who would be next. For me this meant beginning breast self-exams (BSEs) at the age of 12, and learning to become assertive about my healthcare needs, thanks to my youngest aunt, who became a nurse.
Twenty hyper-vigilant years passed before we dealt with cancer once again. Then one of my mother’s older sisters also died of ovarian cancer before age 60. She, like my mother, hid her sickness until the end, because she wanted to protect her family from the imminent trauma. But this was to no avail. And as I grew older, the threat of cancer was always lurking.
At age 30, I had my first mammogram, ten years earlier than the recommended age for most women. While medical advances have improved survival rates significantly since my mother died back in 1982, all of these early detection screenings, clinical exams, and monthly BSEs could only detect cancer, but they couldn’t prevent it. Even scarier was the threat of ovarian cancer—known as the silent killer—because symptoms don’t appear until later stages, after it has spread to other organs. As a result, my mother’s three remaining sisters decided to take preventative measures. Two of my aunts had their ovaries removed upon turning 40, and my youngest aunt also opted to have a preventative double mastectomy with reconstruction. It was through her that I learned about genetic testing.
According to one study, only a third of African-American women who meet the criteria for genetic testing are actually referred. I was only referred because I insisted on getting tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. This test is expensive and insurance only covers it if you meet certain criteria, such as having first degree relatives with breast cancer. While these mutations are only responsible for about 10% of cancers, the genetic counselor explained to me that if my test results were positive, I would have had up to a 65% of developing ovarian cancer in my lifetime and up to an 80% chance of developing breast cancer. It was a simple blood test for which I’d have to wait 60 days before I received my results. I wasn’t afraid of the results; instead I felt empowered that I would know if I carried the gene and what my options were.
Lucky for me, my results were negative. However, I did have a genetic mutation, referred to as a variant of uncertain significance, because it is not known whether or not it could cause cancer. In addition to having two pelvic exams per year, as well as annual blood tests and ultrasounds, I elected to have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed last month at age 36.
This decision was not taken lightly. I consulted with an oncological gynecologist. I also saw a therapist to help me deal with all of the baggage that was brought up about cancer, the trauma of watching my grandmother suffer, the fact that I would go into immediate menopause, and facing my own mortality. Sure, I had choices that my grandmother, mother, and aunt didn’t have, but I was still going under the knife—a risk within itself. While the surgery was laparoscopic with an estimated recovery time of two weeks, my recovery was more difficult and lasted closer to the three weeks.
The sense of security it gives me has been worth it all.
Within the next year, I will also have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. While this is a much more intensive and dangerous procedure—and has a six-week recovery time—in the end, it too will be worth it.
I don’t look at it as brave, but necessary. While my results were negative, recent research has indicated that there are more genetic mutations being discovered that could be linked to cancers. As African-American women specifically, we develop breast cancer at an earlier age and it tends to be more aggressive. So while I’m no world famous icon, I am a member of a medically underserved population who has experienced the distress of watching loved ones suffer from the disease. Therefore, I choose to act.
Being a career mom and dream chaser, surgery is scary. Recovery has been and will be challenging. At this moment in my life, however, hearing those dreaded words, “You have cancer,” seems much more unbearable.
That doesn’t make me a hero; it makes me afraid.
Brenda's Child is the self-proclaimed diva on a mission to inspire and save lives. Born Latoya Bosworth, she dubbed herself Brenda's Child at the age of 21, in honor of her late mother Brenda Kay Swinton. Brenda's Child continuously spreads her message of H.E.R.S – health, empowerment, resiliency, and self-worth – in workshops, as keynote speaker, in print and on stage.