Double Mastectomy: Choosing A Full Life

The Hartford Courant

I was moved by Angelina Jolie's recent revelation that she had a double mastectomy because she has a BRAC gene mutation that indicates a higher risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer. I am BRCA 1 positive and had my breasts removed to reduce my risk of breast cancer.

Similar to Ms. Jolie, I lost my mom at a young age to breast cancer, but I also lost my dad to this horrific breast disease.

After being at their bedsides, my mom was sick for 12 years and my dad for six, I knew the positive effect the oncology nurses had on to them. Shortly after my dad's death, I decided to be an oncology nurse to offer comfort to patients and families faced with similar situations.

In my second year as a nurse, I attended a seminar on "The Risks of Breast Cancer." I was newly married, with no children, starting my career — in the prime of life. However, I was suddenly scared. I knew that my risk of developing breast cancer was greater because of my parents' history, but until then it had not set in.

After the seminar, I called my parents' oncologist and arranged for genetic testing, which showed I had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer. The oncologist asked if I wanted children. The answer was, "Yes, of course!"

Nonetheless, I asked myself, "Why would I bring I child into this world if I'm going to die at 50? How could I put children through the emotional roller coaster I rode for 15 years?"

I am who I am because of my mom and dad. I chose my career to help ease the pain of others who suffered like them. I wanted children because my parents loved me so much and I wanted to one day indulge my children with that same love. I chose the man I did because he made me laugh, he let me cry uncontrollably in his arms and he lovingly stood by my side as my parents' health failed. And with that I decided it didn't matter. My husband and I would start a family and figure out the rest.

With the love and support of my husband and our families, I gave birth to the most beautiful little girl and two years later her adorable baby brother.

Then, it was time. All the studies show, a second-generation woman should have a prophylactic mastectomy 10 years before the age at which her mother was diagnosed. I was 34 and my mom was diagnosed at 46.

I looked at my husband and said, "My kids need me." He responded, "I need you."

I underwent a bilateral mastectomy last fall with DIEP (deep inferior epigastric perforators) flap reconstruction. In this procedure, the plastic surgeon uses tissue from the abdomen to reconstruct the breasts. The procedure takes from eight to nine hours, but I had zero chance of my body rejecting "my new breasts" because it was my tissue.

After surgery, I was told my lymph nodes were negative. I felt sheer relief. Now almost seven months later, I am healed, no longer in pain and happy. I have lost that nervous, on-edge feeling that my next mammogram or MRI will show something.

I was petrified when I tested BRCA positive, but I researched, asked questions and made the best decision. Every day the purple scars on my breasts remind me of that decision. But I am healthy. Now my risk of developing breast cancer is less than 5 percent.

Being diagnosed BRCA-positive is not a death sentence. But it meant I needed to be monitored every six months for breast and ovarian disease. Because I was at high risk, my health insurance covered yearly mammograms from the time I was 29, yearly breast MRIs and ultrasounds of my ovaries every six months. Along with my doctors, I had to be vigilant and aware of my options.

The option I chose was to have a bilateral mastectomy. My option was to live to see my children graduate from college, marry the loves of their lives and have babies, something my parents missed ... something I will not miss.

Kate Kilbride of Meriden is a registered nurse who specializes in oncology.

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