Cancer always felt like destiny. It all started with cancer; my parents had never considered procreation until my grandma Rae willed me into existence with a deathbed wish: "Have a child, name her after me." Shortly after, she died of ovarian cancer, with which she had only been diagnosed about 9 months before. And she wasn't the only one. Cancer is a bit of a family tradition. My great grandfather Olindo died of breast cancer and so did my mom, Carol. Countless aunts and cousins also had brushes with illness; some succumbed and some didn't and there never seemed to be much logic to any of it. As doctors have recently been fond of telling me, I have "a bad family history."
And I always kind of knew it. This was before people talked about the BRCA mutations or Ashkenazi heritage as a risk factor. I just had this feeling of foreboding. I was the only girl I knew who cried when her breasts first warranted a bra. I grew up to be pretty well endowed, but I never connected to my breasts or my body in the same way that a lot of my friends seemed to. Everything felt like a loaner. I didn't want to get too attached.
My mom was diagnosed with stage IV cancer when I was 20, but had probably been sick for years before. I think it's common for women to look at their mothers for hints on what their future might hold, and mine was not looking too bright. Mom's experience with cancer was not typical: her body was ravaged in a way that you don't often see because she had been so sick for so long. All kinds of necrosis, lots of bleeding, very severe lymphedema (poor mom grew a bit of a Hellboy arm) and other things that I won't tell you about because they were gross. Yes, if there was one thing I learned about cancer, it was that it was really, really gross. In those first few years, I was overly squeamish about her physical changes and I think that was mostly because I figured that it was inevitable that my body would eventually go through the same thing.
My mom died when I was 28. I knew that she was very ill, but part of me thought that maybe she would just keep on living somehow, since she already had beaten so many odds. In that way, her death was still a shock, even though I had been trying to preemptively grieve it for 8 years (turns out that's not the way grief works). When she died, I went on autopilot. I spread her ashes in Central Park, where we had spent so many long days of play and exploration; I finished grad school, which is what she would have wanted for me, and then I got the fuck out of New York because I couldn't bear to be in a city that reminded me so much of her. Starting there, most of the decisions I made were out of fear and to avoid pain. In the back of my head, I always thought "You are going to get sick, so you have to start laying groundwork now, preparing." I stayed in a dysfunctional relationship for way too long thinking that at least I would have someone to take care of me when I got ill. I hunkered down in Seattle even though I disliked it because it is an easy place to live and I have a network here. I was too scared to start over somewhere else, where I might get sick and be alone. I stopped taking risks or having much fun. Life got Very Serious.
Just when I thought things couldn't get much more serious, I decided to go get my BRCA test once and for all (results still pending). The doctor read over my chart and looked at me in a way I can only describe as painfully earnest. "I am so glad you are here," he said. Well, that made one of us. He did a breast exam and found a lump, but wasn't so worried because "breast tissue is lumpy sometimes, like a cobblestone road." Next came a mammogram, and then a Stereotactic Breast Biopsy. It turned out the lump was nothing but there was a small cluster of calcifications lurking in my left breast. This ended up being Atypical Ductal Hyperplasia; precancerous cells that indicate high risk for future invasive breast cancer and also sometimes signal the presence of Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (sometimes referred to as stage 0 breast cancer). In order to figure out if that is the case for me, I have to get an exicisional biopsy, which involves more mammography, the placement of a wire marker, and the removal of the entire atypical area. If there is no DCIS, we'll go for increased screening with regular mammograms and MRIs. If there is DCIS, well, that means more surgery (a lumpectomy or mastectomy depending on various factors), as well as the possibility of radiation and a tamoxifen regimen. According to my MD, the chances of DCIS turning up are about 10-15%. While I know that I am lucky in that I am mostly likely not facing a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer (although my MD also informed me that this actually is a possibility), I can't help but be a little bitter. Like "Oh, so and so is buying a house, and so and so is getting married and I am getting fucking cancer."
The main thing I am realizing through this is experience is that you can't hide out from grief, pain, adversity. Attempting to do so was a waste of time and in the process I probably missed out on some formative experiences. There is no "safe," so I should stop looking for it. Maybe cancer is my destiny, maybe I have it as I type. But now that seems like all the more reason to make it my business to take risks and go after the experiences that I value instead of holing up in my apartment hoping that misfortune will forget about me if I just stand very still.