I'll never forget how shocked and overwhelmed I felt the day my sister called me and told me she had breast cancer. She was 31. We had no history of it in our family.
My world suddenly shifted – my sister and I are best friends, and our 5 year age gap meant that we grew up with less sibling rivalry than most. Now she was faced with a cancer diagnosis just as she was getting the hang of life. And as her sister, this would change my life too.
I went out to see her when she had her first lumpectomy surgery and remember feeling very anxious. She soon discovered she would need chemotherapy, so I decided to shave my head in solidarity with her – she shaved her head before starting chemo so she wouldn't have to watch it fall out.
We raised money for International China Concern, an organization she had volunteered with in rural China for 1 year, and had planned to go back – but those plans were dashed with her new diagnosis. I remember going to see her during a few of her rounds of chemo, how tired and brain foggy she was, how short-tempered she got. I remember when she had a full mastectomy and breast reconstruction and how odd her scars looked when they healed.
And I started feeling this new feeling. A feeling of dread and foreboding.
Is Breast Cancer In My Future Too?
At the time, I worked in the field of head and neck cancer, so I was no stranger to cancer. I was no stranger to the difficult side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, or the possible surgical complications that could happen. But that was in my professional life, not in my personal life. Until now.
Could it be that I would end up a cancer patient too? After all, my sister was so so so young when she got it.
She ended up going for genetic testing but came out with inconclusive results. What did that mean for me? And then I got pregnant – what did that mean for my unborn daughter? My mother-in-law also had breast cancer in her 40s, so did that mean breast cancer was inevitable for my baby girl?
The fear of breast cancer is a cloud that hangs over me, never leaving me alone. I can't shake it, I can't put it away in a box. I can't help but wonder how it will continue to play a role in my future… and in my daughter's future.
It has been 8 and a half years since my sister was diagnosed, and she is doing fine now. But this past spring, my mother got the news that she also had breast cancer. Thankfully it was caught very early and she had quite minimal treatment – a lumpectomy and a short bout of radiation.
But what am I supposed to think when my 2 closest female family members both got breast cancer?
3 Ways I'm Dealing With My Fears
All I can do is try to turn my fear into energy for breast cancer prevention.
When my sister started learning about environmental factors that could have contributed to her cancer, I started an overhaul of my lifestyle.
When I prepared for the arrival of my daughter, I spent hours doing research into baby products and what they contained, which eventually led me to start my blog, juicy green mom. Now I do my best to live as green and toxin-free as possible, because even though I know I carry a toxic body burden from my years prior to making all these changes, I can still do my best to reduce my daughter's exposure as much as possible.
I also decided to go off the birth control pill. Although there isn't any definitive research pointing to a causal relationship between the birth control pill and breast cancer, it is never recommended to women who have had breast cancer.
Nor is hormone replacement therapy recommended for women going through menopause who have had breast cancer. In the spirit of “better to be safe than sorry”, I decided with my doctor that I should no longer use any kind of hormone therapy.
I don't know what I'll do when my now 6-year-old girl gets to that age… but my hope is that research will be much more definitive and that prevention methods will be more clear and effective by the time she gets there.
I am now in the queue to look into genetic testing also. The hypothesis for my mom's cancer is that the years of hormone replacement therapy with menopause probably played a large role. But who knows if there's a genetic link? I've also started considering preventative mastectomy. It's a major surgery, so it's certainly not a decision to be taken lightly.
Cancer is a bitch, there is no doubt about that. And it never seems to stop rearing its ugly head. Can I escape breast cancer? I don't know. But I am going to try my best to keep it away from me and from my daughter.
Living Well In Motherhood
Green Moms Collective is passionate about living well in motherhood. With a little help from mothers who get it and wellness experts. Get us weekly.