Fortunately, I wasn’t. And my plan is to keep it that way. But to meet that goal I’ve decided to make a big personal sacrificetwo, actually. I’ll soon have radical surgery to remove my ovaries and drastically lower my risk of cancer. It’s no easy decision, believe me. I’m 39, and no 39-year-old I know would happily choose a lifetime of hot flashes and vaginal dryness from early menopause. But I might not live with my ovaries, so I think I’ve reached a place where I can live without them. Here’s how I got there.
February 2005Are these my genes?
When my mom and my aunt developed cancer, no one looked into where these female cancers were coming from. All we had was family lore that when the doctors opened and shut my great-grandmother, the cancer had spread far from her ovaries to the surrounding tissue. So when my social worker cousin (my aunt’s daughter) insisted that we all consider genetic testing, it was almost too much truth to confront. But I sat through the hour-long family-tree chart with a genetic counselor, had blood drawn, and then heard what no one wants to hear: My mom, my aunt, and I were all Breast Cancer 1 (BRCA-1) and BRCA-2 positive. We had the genes that raise your risk of ovarian cancer from 2 percent to as high as 45 percent and risk of breast cancer from 13 percent to as high as 80 percent. (In a weird twist of fate, the cousin who pushed us to get tested turned out to be negative. Her sister and my brother have yet to be tested; please keep your fingers crossed.)
I found it ironic that my ovaries had the potential to kill me. While I’d known for a few years that my ovaries were hardly superstarsI have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine disorder that can lead to very heavy periods, difficulty losing weight, persistent acne, infertility, ovarian cysts, and increased facial hairthey worked when I needed them to. With a little help from my in vitro fertilization (IVF) team, these organs were directly responsible for giving me my son, my greatest production to date.
Now I felt as if I’d been hit by a stun gun. I started doing some deep thinking about my legacy and wondering what went wrong. You’re supposed to get great things from your ancestors: perfect pitch, dimples, the ability to tell a great joke and make piecrust from scratch. You’re not supposed to get a high-risk gene. Maybe my 92-year-old grandmother was too overwhelmed to express how she really felt, but she did sayupon hearing the newsthat she’d never have married my grandfather if she knew his side of the family harbored this insidious genetic strain. That’s how crazy life can get when you feel bad about your genes.