I know a lot of people are saying that 2016 has been a bad year and they can’t wait for it to be over, but I still believe there are things to be grateful for. No matter how hard it gets, there is always a little bright light left.
I saw a little bit of that light a few days ago. Actually, it was a blindingly bright light that just changed the trajectory of my life.
Let me start from the beginning. Unfortunately, I come from a family where cancer has liked to claim a stake. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35 (she’s alive and well today), my aunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 55 (she’s alive and well, too) and my grandma was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her early 60’s (she has since passed on but she lived to be 91 years old). So as you can tell from that paragraph, we’ve had lucky breaks from unlucky circumstances.
I was two years old when my mom was diagnosed with cancer so I have grown up having some understanding of what this disease entails. While I don’t remember my mom going through chemo or having surgeries, there were still ripples of her illness all throughout my childhood that served as reminders of what she went through.
As time went on, our family decided to get tested for the BRCA I and II genes. All of the diagnoses seemed like more than just coincidence. My grandma, aunt, and mom were tested at UCLA about ten years ago and they all had the same variance on the BRCA II gene. At the time the researchers said it was inconclusive. Not enough information to say one way or the other. It could just be chance.
Flash forward ten years. I am now 25. Growing up with all of this information, it has always been important to me to equip myself with as much knowledge as possible. I know that some people hesitate to find out this information about their genetic make-up (and that is a personal decision), but I know that I needed to do the testing for myself. I think back to my mom surviving stage III cancer with a two year old at home and I immediately knew that I want to be as preventative as possible.
So, a few weeks ago, my mom and I went back for testing at UCLA. I cried the morning of the testing but when I saw my mom, we kept it light. I think we both secretly knew how intense this day could be but we decided to stay positive. When you sit in the heaviness of what could be, it’s just too much. We made a mother-daughter day of it and went out for lunch and shopping afterward.
But at the testing, I felt that much more nervous when our genetic counselor told us that the variance that my mom, grandma, and aunt has is actually 95% likely to be pathogenic. The research in the past 10 years has taken those originally inconclusive results and reframed them as mutative agents that are much more likely to lead to cancer than in the average person. Okay, good to know.
So you can imagine how I felt when I answered the phone on Wednesday and my genetic counselor was on the other line. Words, words, words…just tell me what I want to know.
“Your test results came back negative. You do NOT have the pathogenic genes.”
There is that blinding, bright light I am talking about. I had prepared myself to hear the worst—to start thinking about prophylactic surgeries and hormone therapies someday. I had not prepared myself for the news that I do not have the same gene as my mom, grandma, and aunt. In so many ways I have wanted to be like my mom but in this sense, I am glad we are different. I can also say this knowing that my mom has taken every preventative measure possible so I can breathe a sigh of relief.
This news is definitely my Christmas present this year. Telling my mom the good news and seeing the shock and then tears come over her face was one of the best moments I have had in my life. Our prayers have been answered and I could see in that minute that my mom was even more relieved than I was. My dad and grandma were just as excited. I know it’s all just chance, but I feel like I have won the lottery.
Just because you get genetic testing, and the results come back negative, it does not mean you are immune. I know that. I will still take preventative steps and get mammograms when I turn 30. These results should not and will not breed ignorance. But they do bring me some peace. That is something I am grateful for.
If something runs in your family, I’d encourage you to consider genetic testing like our family did. No matter how the results come out, the knowledge is empowering. It does not determine the decisions you make, but it certainly informs them.
Hug your family and friends a little tighter in these last few days of 2016. There are still bright lights all around you.