Cancer runs in my family - or perhaps I should say: cancer runs my family. My mother, 2 of her 3 sisters and one of their children, both of her brothers, her father, my father and his mother, sister and brother have all suffered from at least one form of cancer. Some of them have died of it. Cancer is just a thing we do in our family. When we share Thanksgiving dinner, cancer is such a big part of things that we practically have to set another place at the table for it.
Except then we'd actually have to talk about it.
My family is one of stoics. I grew up in the Northwest, but both sides of my family come from sturdy Midwest stock, from the land of Suck It Up. We're not "feelers"; we're "doers." We talk, but we talk about ideas, and about plans. We certainly don't talk about feelings, and if we do, they're feelings of love or anger, but never feelings of fear.
I think you'd probably agree with me here when I say that cancer is on most people's Top 5 list of scary things. An invisible enemy? Inside me? One that might kill me? Or one that might make me accidentally kill myself while trying to kill the enemy? Super scary.
The problem with not talking about a thing is that it tends to encourage wild imaginings that are often far worse than the probable reality with regard to that thing. I fell prey to this phenomenon the first time I had a cancer scare, mostly because I didn't have a lot of information or resources available to me (I was 28, living at the poverty line, and had a tumor in my breast). The people who loved me didn't know what to do about my cancer; the people who knew what to do about my cancer couldn't process the other stuff. You're 28? 28-year-olds don't get breast cancer. You're poor? Bummer! Wish we had some kind of program for you. But you're only 28.
So there was nobody I could really talk to about this stuff who could truly grok what I was going through - physical, emotional, financial.
So I just didn't...talk to anybody.
The isolation and depression grew, and eventually became crippling. The cancer thing got resolved - physically, anyway. I have about a cubic inch less breast on the left side now. But the feeling of loneliness was burned so thoroughly into my memory that I can still conjure up exactly where I was - what the light was like, even - at specific moments while dealing with the illness and recovery.
It's been close to 12 years since I went through that horrible scenario that ended so much better for me than it could have. This winter, I had another cancer scare - this time, of the cervix.
I decided to do three things differently, which I believe to have saved my sanity:
- Talk to everybody I could about everything, telling the whole truth and being completely honest about every part of my experience. Protect nobody. They don't need protecting. If they do, they'll self-select out of the process. Taboo is for pussies.
- Learn as much as I could about all aspects of it. More correct facts = less nightmarish imaginings.
- Commit to only solving problems I knew to be current realities, and ignore the problems that I knew to only exist in the possible future. "Who knows if I'll be able to have children in the future?" Who knows? Who cares? Let's just deal with this fucking cervix right now, shall we?
Once again, I dodged a bullet. A particularly unpleasant colposcopy showed that cervical cancer wasn't a concern for me right now.
So, yay. Right? Right....
I wasn't satisfied. I didn't know enough. I felt like I had just barely come out of that cancer scare, like I hadn't actually learned anything to better equip me for the next time I got a nasty mortal surprise. It's like almost being hit by lightning and not Googling "how to not get hit by lightning" after that. Who wants to stay as dumb as they used to be?
I felt like I was too trusting of old medicine. And not old-old medicine, the stuff that works so well it's been around for thousands of years, but the stuff that's worked well enough for us for the last 50 years that we just kind of stick with it until we have something better - the least bad of the alternatives. New-old medicine.
This same new-old medicine had betrayed me too many times, with my thyroid, with depression, with weight loss. This new-old medicine had shrugged when it could have leaned forward and asked a bigger question, and discovered a better answer.
So I decided to go with new-new medicine: DNA. Because who's a more tenacious, voracious learner than a genetic scientist?
Part of this was inspired by Angelina Jolie's first op-ed in the New York Times about her genetic exploration and choice to have a double mastectomy. I've always respected her honesty about the topic, and believe that her decision to share her experience has done wonders to quash the taboo for other women - women who maybe didn't even know how to start framing questions they'd been mulling in an amorphous form, for years.
But I also decided to take a look at my DNA because a naturopath had theorized that the problems I was having (depression, weight gain, other thyroid BS) were due to an inability to process folic acid. She suggested that I take the 23andMe.com saliva test, and I decided to do it.
When we got the raw results back, she looked for the markers associated with my various maladies, and sure enough: all my stuff? My depression? My mysterious weight gain? My inability to just...deal with shit? Not laziness! An actual genetic mutation! Better yet, a genetic mutation that had fairly simple workaround.
For those of you keeping score:
New-new science: 1
New-old science: -1000.
It's time to look a little harder at the rest of my DNA, particularly with regard to cancer, since, you know, that's my jam, family wise. I've made an appointment with a genetic counselor (for next week, in fact) to look at my raw DNA for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 markers, and figure out what's what from there. Because more facts = less nightmares. And more facts = better decisions.
I wasn't going to say anything to anybody about this stuff, but Jolie actually just ran another op-ed piece in the NYT this morning, and it gave me goosebumps. Give it a read when you get a chance. Then go spit into a test tube, if you're into that kind of thing.
Good luck! Go forth and learn!