Choosing gratitude in face of a difficult diagnosis

This week’s Beauty Detox blogger assignment was to write about something we are grateful for. Practicing gratitude, meaning thinking of or writing down specific things that I’m grateful for, is something I turn to regularly, especially when I’m feeling down or stressed. It doesn’t always make my problems go away, but it does help put things into perspective.

As Kimberly Snyder writes, “It’s impossible to feel sad, worried or angry and feel gratitude at the same time.” 

For this assignment, I immediately knew what I wanted to write about. It’s something that I’ve been contemplating sharing here on the blog, but it’s also something very personal that I wasn’t sure I should broadcast on the Internet. But it’s something that has played a major role in my life over the last several years, and especially this past year, and sent me on a roller coaster of emotions including sadness, fear, disappointment, and anger, but throughout it all, and especially now, an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

In 2012 I received the news that I’d been dreading. My genetic testing results were in, and I found out that I was positive for the BRCA1 mutation. This is the genetic mutation that caused my mom’s ovarian cancer, which she died from in 2009 at only 55. As a result of my diagnosis, I chose to have a prophylactic double mastectomy in March of this year, which reduced my risk of breast cancer to virtually nothing. While I’m not grateful for my BCRA1 mutation, which I could have definitely done without, I am beyond thankful for the knowledge and ability to do something about it.

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Yes, this is the same procedure that Angelina Jolie underwent. And this is another reason I want to share my story. I remember when Angelina’s news came out, I heard a lot of different reactions. At that time, I already knew I had the BRCA1 mutation, but I hadn’t fully committed to a course of action yet. I remember the women talking about Angelina’s surgery at my pilates class. Although some used the word “brave”, most were using words like “extreme” and “drastic”.

I thought, “extreme?” Do they not know how extreme the risk of breast and ovarian cancer is with this particular genetic mutation? Would they still think it was so drastic if they knew that with this genetic mutation, we have a 40-85% chance of breast cancer and a 25–65% chance of ovarian cancer and that cancers occur at younger ages  and are much, much more aggressive than in women without this mutation? Would they think it was so extreme if they knew that there is no single test that can reliably detect ovarian cancer at a pre-symptomatic stage?

For reference, the average lifetime risk for women without the mutation is around 11% for breast cancer and 1.5% for ovarian cancer. Now, look back up at those numbers above. Isn’t that pretty extreme?

I know lots of people will continue to disagree with this choice. But very few of those people are medical professionals or researchers, who are pretty much in unanimous agreement on this topic, which doesn’t happen often. The science is so strong that our government health plans covers 100% of the costs because they know that prevention will cost them a whole lot less than cancer treatment, which also doesn’t happen often.

I’m not out to change anyone’s opinion, but by sharing my story I hope maybe some people will think, “hey, if Jill chose to do this, maybe it’s not really that crazy after all.” I also just met a girl at a party over the weekend who was going to be doing the genetic testing in the near future because her father had prostate cancer (also linked to BRCA). I shared that I am so happy I made the decision to do this, because although I don’t know what else will get me, I know that it won’t be breast cancer. I shared that although it’s major surgery and the recovery isn’t easy, the anxiety I experienced before receiving my test results and before undergoing the surgery was so much worse. I shared my experience, and she told me it was comforting, since now she knew that even the worst case scenario wasn’t all that bad.

My journey isn’t over, since I have a surgery in November to complete the reconstruction, and the next step will be to take care of my ovaries, which is a whole other complex set of decisions. But I am so so so thankful for the opportunity to take these preventative measures. I’m so grateful for my wonderful medical team and thankful for a wonderful recovery with amazing support from my sister, boyfriend, friends and coworkers. I was lucky that I didn’t run into any complications, and I’m completely thrilled with my cosmetic results. I am grateful to my mother for having the test done when she received her own cancer diagnosis and I’m grateful that science has come so far to enable this option which didn’t exist when her own mother died of the same cancer 20 years before. Through this whole process I have been so thankful that I live in a country where this testing and treatment is made available to me at no cost, and thankful for access to some of the leading doctors in this field. I am just so grateful for the knowledge about my BRCA1 mutation and for the ability to do something about it. Thanks mom. Thanks science.

If you or someone you know is faced with this difficult decision, visit My Destiny or the Prophylactic Mastectomy Facebook Group for information and support.

28 Comments

  1. That’s so beautiful that you’ve found gratitude amidst a deep struggle! That is real beauty! Thank you Jill for sharing and I’ll pray for your continued perseverance and strength in turn life 🙂

  2. Jill,
    This is such a brave post and without a doubt the best blogging I’ve read this week. Usually bloggers try to make everything seem so sunny and perfect (I know I’m guilty of this a lot), but it’s so nice to read something so genuine. This sounds like such a smart, but scary decision. Best of luck with the continuation of this process!
    -E

    • Aww thanks so much, Erin! Sweetest comment 🙂 I was nervous about sharing something so personal here, but you guys are the best!

  3. Hey! I’m one of Laura’s friend from Toronto. I just want you to know that I have so often thought of this blog. My mom died of Breast Cancer when she was 50 and because of the type of cancer she had, my doctor has offered me to have the genetic testing done. I was referred over a year ago and now we’ve moved and had another baby and life has moved on. Sunnybrooke recently called to book my appointment. When I had the referral I was happy to have knowledge but now that it’s coming down to actually having the test done, i’m pretty nervous. This blog post has made me feel not so alone. So thanks! I’m worried about the decisions that need to be made as well. But i’m trying not to put the cart before the horse. Anyway, thanks for this.

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