Like Christina Applegate and Ann Jillian, Angelina Jolie has brought the decision for a preventative double mastectomy to the fore. Before I married my husband, I told him that I might make their very same decision someday. However, three children and 20 years later, I still have my breasts.
To say that the decision is a personal one barely touches the profound depths that a woman plumbs when considering elective amputation. However, just because a decision is personal does not mean that it is insulated. Here is my story:
I was born on the second anniversary of my Aunt Marion's death at age 41 of breast cancer. Aunt Marion was survived by her husband and a three-year-old son, whose life was never the same. The other survivors were her parents, brothers and sister, Eleanore, who is my mother and who was never the same, either.
Aunt Marion's husband remarried a widow with children, most likely for the sake of the son. It was a total Cinderella fake-out. The woman would soon be a widow for the third time, as my uncle “had a heart attack and fell down the stairs” as I was told. My cousin grew up as the odd-man-out, sometimes being locked in a closet for whatever childishness that his stepmother took as a transgression. One day my cousin walked home from school, only to find all of his family photos (of himself as a baby with Aunt Marion and his father) strewn all over the street and in the garbage can. The stepmother had adopted him for the Social Security and just as quickly booted him out of the house when he came of age.
I grew up horribly afraid of losing my mother to breast cancer. I used to pray for her especial protection any time I heard the word “cancer,” which was a pretty popular word in the 1970s in New Jersey. My father's mother, Katherine, died at the age of 65 of breast cancer. I am of 100% Polish stock, and began to wonder whether it was a hereditary curse—one from both sides of my family and therefore surely inescapable.
Reaching menarche early did not help me set my mind to other things; soon after there were many newspaper articles stating that early menarche was a major risk factor for breast cancer. And at around age 14, I began praying for myself to be a survivor. (In my mind, it was never a matter of “if,” but of “when.”)
Being the scholarly sort, I threw myself into studies, which were always rushed so that I could finish them “before I get cancer.” I graduated Princeton in three years and immediately went on to Rutgers Law School, which offered me an amazing scholarship. Who gets a scholarship for law school? I did not even seriously consider other law schools, because I did not want any school debt to burden “what might be the last years of my life”--you know, my mid-twenties.
After a few years of litigation practice, it occurred to me that I was still alive. Had I dodged the genetic bullet? Or perhaps my odd little practices of not getting too close to the television, the paper copier, and later, the microwave, were all adding up to a set of valuable preventative measures. Perhaps I could realize the deepest dream of my heart and have children? Would that be too selfish?
My mother, Eleanore, was diagnosed at age 60 with estrogen-receptor breast cancer. There was talk of a genetic component, but the diagnosis came one or two years before the term “breast cancer gene” (“BRCA”), which is a misleading term for a gene that humans have to protect them from things like breast cancer, but in which some people have a nullifying mutation.
Just as Mommy was recuperating from her right-sided mastectomy, I was gaining hope. Her breast cancer had been caught early, due to screening. This put Eleanore ahead of Marion and Katherine, who discovered they had breast cancer when their breasts were hardened with the disease and their backs were wracked with pain from metastasis.
My mother had options, such as Tamoxifen, which she rejected (and might have regretted rejecting; I'm really not sure). I searched for alternative treatments and became well-versed in the latest “hocus-pocus,” as my family might say. Although my mother also declined the offer of these medicinal nutrients, to this day, I respect the research on them. And, over the last few years, I have increasingly taken a broad array of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and the B complex and magnesium. Plus, in the last few years particularly, I have taken Iodarol (two forms of iodine), DIM (a special concentration of cruciferous vegetables), mushrooms, rosemary, turmeric, milk thistle and such. Most recently the fat soluble vitamins (A,D, E and K), lycopene, and natural progesterone have risen to the top of my daily list.
Well, just as Aunt Marion's passing lit the fire under Eleanore's dupa to get married (in her thirties—we are an oddly late-blooming family for one that has “too many hormones”), my mother's diagnosis lit the fire under my dupa, and I met the nicest of the nice young men I was wont to meet. And before we married I told him that I desired children and wanted to be a stay-at-home mother (just in case I died and left a three-year old, who would need to have had every single moment with me leading up to that point). Also, I told him that I was in favor of preventative mastectomy. He appreciated my truthfulness, and I appreciated his sportingness. And, here we are twenty years later.
Our first child was born several months after I turned thirty, the age otherwise known as the months past the year of no return to those of us in breast cancer families. (“Early menarche and delaying childbearing until after age 30 are prime risk factors for breast cancer...blah, blah, blah.”)
And then I nursed my little baby girl.
And the sun and the moon rose together and never set.
Did you know that a woman's nipple is not just one “hole,” but rather a cluster of gland endings from which runs out the most important food in the world, human breast milk? Did you know that breast milk provides protective immune boosters for your baby? Did you know that human breast milk has a higher ratio of sugars than some other mammals' milk, because these sugars help the human brain grow? Did you know that ancient Chinese wisdom holds that breast milk is “white blood”?
Did you know that nursing binds mother and child, emotionally, physically (through oxytocin), and even intellectually and spiritually? Did you know that a child often shows her humor and playfulness while she is nursing? She will poke and wink and laugh and spit out her mouthful as she plays with nursing mother? Did you know that a child cannot help but relax when mother is settled in for a good long session of nursing?
With only three children, I have nursed for over 10 years.
My breasts are not sex symbols; they are part of the national defense, just as much as are the strong legs or arms of a soldier. And so my thinking has changed: why would I want to amputate my breasts?
My most beloved mother, Eleanore, passed away at age 72. She had survived breast cancer for twelve years, the years in which her first 4 grandchildren were born and were loved by her immensely. She knew that a fifth grandchild was on the way. I whispered in her ear, “Mommy, I think that you are going to go to God before I do. Please ask Him to send me a third child.” And six months after my mother's passing, I was 40 years old and pregnant for the third time (with my parents' sixth grandchild).
As a descendant of a breast cancer mother, my father was not surprised to end up with prostate cancer, which can run in breast cancer families. He, too, was a twelve-year survivor. He got to finish my parents' work of being grandparents to all six of the grandchildren.
My husband, children and I have been intimately involved in the care and hospicing of my parents and one uncle, all in the last decade of our family's life. Each term of care is a midwifery of sorts as the loved one is “birthed into Heaven.” But there is no due date, and parting is such sweet sorrow. My father died in our master bedroom, where my husband and I now sleep. My husband, children and I are still recuperating from living with so much death. But, we would not change a thing about our decisions, either.
And so, at age 48, I contemplate why I am not part of the sorority of breast cancer patients—at least not yet.
Eleanore's posthumous medical records show that she was a BRCA1 patient. My father refused my request for testing. Neither of my parents wanted to “be responsible” for their descendants' cancer.
If the genetic testing for breast cancer reduces in price from the ridiculous $3000.00 cost right now, and if I am retired and not interested in whether a BRCA mutation could damage my chances of being hired down the line (I'm still home now), I shall be tested for the benefit of my children. (Of course, Obamacare may make such a test undesirable for anyone, as it might lead to death panel concerns.)
Yes, at age 48, I spend more time wondering why I have not yet developed breast cancer, than wondering if and when. I contemplate how being in a breast cancer family is socially defining. That is, I come from a people who absolutely adore their mothers (not a bad thing!). I come from a people with helicopter mothering (mostly a good thing!). Women in my family are up on a pedestal as Sofia, Wisdom personified.
So, I have done some research on BRCA1. This mutation most likely revealed itself several hundred years ago at or around the northern Polish-Russian border area. From these Finnic-Slavs, the mutation was probably married into the Ashkenazim, whom I believe to have such a preponderance of breast cancer for the same reason my family might: delayed childbearing, perhaps for educational purposes. Other people with a high incidence of BRCA mutation challenges include the French-Canadians, which are the people from whom Angelina Jolie's mother descended.
But where are the roots of the BRCA mutations? Sometimes I ponder the history of the Poles, who claim to have Scythian-Sarmatian blood. Scythian-Sarmatians, in turn, are thought to be the descendants of the perhaps not-so-mythical Amazons.
The Amazons were legendary for warrior-women, who each cut off one breast in order to fight, it was thought. Could these Amazon women merely have been making Angelina Jolie's decision for preventative mastectomy?
My husband still smilingly calls me his “trophy wife,” a term which does not seem to fit with my mature figure. He also calls me a “fierce mother,” because of my love for our children, whom I homeschool, and because of my love for other people's children, as evinced in my pro-life activities. So, perhaps, Amazon woman blood does flow through my veins. Perhaps that is why I have not yet chosen to make Angelina's decision.
Marianna Trzeciak's writings have been published in American Thinker, LifeNews, LifeSiteNews, and Catholic and secular print news sources.