I was a child when my mother told me she had breast cancer. She explained that she was going to have an operation and that when she came home from the hospital, her breasts would be gone.
My reply was something that haunts me to this day, “That’s OK, Mom, just don’t let them cut your hair.”
You see, my mother had long, thick black shiny hair, something that a child with “fine towhead” hair, revered. She was a beautiful woman from all accounts and memory.
I have replayed that comment for my entire life.
After the double radical mastectomy, she underwent strenuous chemotherapy. With the twists and turns of life, as her hair began falling out, it was I who took long sheers and cut her remaining hair as she sat stoically watching in the mirror.
These memories and others surrounding her struggle radically changed me; my perceptions about the fragility of health, life and death. When I saw Angelina Jolie’s announcement about her decision to have a preventive mastectomy, I decided to write this piece.
For years I have purposefully avoided, denied and declined genetic testing. The reason was simple: knowing one is pre-disposed to breast cancer has no purpose.
If anything, living in fear seemed worse than not knowing one’s body is a “ticking time bomb.”
What the announcement did, for motherless women like me, who have watched our mothers die from this horrid disease, is simple; it provided an option that is seemingly viable if one’s test reveals that they are genetically pre-disposed to breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, risk is increased by a family history (especially first-degree relatives) of breast cancer, although most women with breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease. The inherited mutations in breast cancer susceptibility genes account for no more than 10 percent of all female breast cancers, and are very rare in the general population (less than 1 percent).
However, for those of us with a strong family history of breast cancer (at least one first-degree relative who had breast cancer under the age of 50), genetic testing may be appropriate.
For some women with breast cancer susceptibility mutations, prevention may be possible. Studies suggest that for certain mutation carriers, BRAC 1 and BRAC 2, prophylactic removal of the breasts could decrease the risk of breast cancer considerably (though not all women who choose the surgery would have developed breast cancer).
The National Cancer Institute states that while nothing removes 100 percent of the risk, for those genetically pre-disposed to breast cancer, the surgical option could reduce the risk up to 90 percent.
Obviously, women considering this surgery should discuss her options and risk with their doctors and families, as well as get other counseling to make the best choice for their health.
The “avant-garde,” pre-emptive choice that Angelina Jolie made regarding her breast health is not right for everyone; but for women like me who have spent their entire lives wondering, it is certainly an option to consider.
Karen Floyd, former chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party, is CEO of The Palladian Group and publisher of Palladian View, a digital magazine for the conservative Republican woman.