(Don’t miss the biggest breakthrough at the end of this post…)
On Friday, I met with a genetic counselor to determine whether or not it made sense to undergo testing. I filled out paperwork prior to the appointment, but I was not prepared for the in-depth examination of my family tree.
The counselor was much younger than I expected, probably in her 20s/early 30s. We went through each person in my family, their medical history, current age (or age and cause of death), through my grandparents’ generation. The counselor was looking for any patterns of certain cancers, of which there weren’t any in order to justify testing (even through she said up front that my age at diagnosis was enough to qualify me for testing).
Next came a slide show reviewing basic biology stuff – what’s a cell, where genetic information comes from, likelihood of sharing traits from one generation to the next.
Finally, we got to the reason I was there, discussion of the BRCA 1/2 genes and the testing. There is a significant increase in the likelihood of a person with the BRCA gene to get breast cancer. I’ve seen different stats through my research, but the ones used by the counselor indicated that a woman in the general population (no BRCA link) has a 7-9 percent chance of getting breast cancer. If she carries one of the BRCA genes, that risk increases to 56-83 percent. (Similarly, a man in the general population has less than 1 percent chance of breast cancer, but if he has the gene, that risk increases to 7 percent.)
We talked about how my medical decisions would change based on the knowledge of my BRCA status (I’d have both breasts removed), and how that would affect my future chances of breast cancer. The GREAT news is that I didn’t cry – the first appointment since my abnormal mammogram in which tears were not shed. Most of my tears have been around telling the kids, but now that it’s done, I’m okay.
Then we talked about testing options. Genetic testing is still really new, and there have been significant advances in the last few years. The test can be really expensive ($5,000+) but once someone in the family has it done, if he/she shows any abnormalities in the genes, other family members can get tested for just a few hundred dollars. Their tests would not be as comprehensive, but would only scan the area of the gene with the defect, i.e., if there was a problem with the 1,568th part of my gene, other family members would just have that position examined for a similar problem. So if my test shows a genetic tie to breast cancer, my sister could be screened, and based on her results, my niece could undergo testing as well. (Interestingly, the genetic test cannot be performed on anyone under the age of 18. An individual must decide for him/herself whether or not he/she wants the knowledge. So my kids will have to wait to learn their genetic risks.)
I could opt to JUST know my BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 status. Or, I could opt to know that plus the status of a half-dozen other genes with a cancer influence. With the second option, everything tested has recommended medical guidelines for future monitoring, so if I was positive for a gene that could cause thyroid cancer, I could have proactive screenings and tests to monitor the organ’s health.
There was also a third option: knowledge of just about every cancer-causing gene known. Many of these genes and their cancer-causing links are REALLY new, and there are no established guidelines for monitoring (and therefore, no insurance will cover the cost of proactive care).
I opted for the second test – BRCA status plus a handful of other “known” genes with recognized screening/treatment protocols. After a simple blood draw and two small tubes of blood, I wait for two to four weeks for the result.
In the meantime:
- Ethan continues to handle the news of my diagnosis and treatment REALLY well. He’s decided he’s going to take a photo a day of me to chronicle this journey. If it helps him cope, I’m in! More than anything I think he’s focused on his own medical news – we learned Friday that he would need surgery to correct a foreskin issue. I was in genetic counseling during his appointment, so my mom went with him. Apparently, when the doc told him the treatment wasn’t working and he’d need surgery, his response was “no.” Ethan and I are looking at two options, and both of us agree that the least invasive one (small incisions versus full circumcision) is worth exploring. I’ve assured him that taking care of this now is for the best and that this will be one of his favorite body parts in the near future. That got us WAY close to, but just shy of, “the” talk.
- I bought four new hats this weekend. (Yay for winter hat clearance sales!) I’ve watched several tutorials on scarf tying. I’m heading to the hospital wellness center today to talk about wig fitting and other chemo necessities. I can’t believe that treatment starts at the end of the week. I’m ready, but it’s happening so soon. I keep telling myself that there has to be a beginning in order for there to be an end.
- Major good work news: I was granted a course reduction for the semester, meaning I’ll teach three (instead of four) courses this spring. The rest of my time will be dedicated to student advising, which gives me the flexibility I need for doctor appointments and much-needed rest. (One class on Mondays and Wednesdays, two classes on Tuesday and Thursdays, no classes on Friday.) I had to jump over a couple of pretty big hurdles to get this, but it’s a REALLY big deal. Classes start next week.
- And I’m saving the biggest news for last… I’ve had three milkshakes since my diagnosis in December. For those who know me, you know this is a GIANT shift in my long-held belief that there’s a frozen treat season, and one should absolutely not consume frozen treats (milkshakes, ice cream/custard/fro yo, frappes, etc.) from Labor Day through Memorial Day. Turns out, milkshakes taste pretty freaking great any time of year. Who knew?!?