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Amputating Body Parts to Stay Alive

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I recently learned that I have the BRCA-1 genetic mutation. I made the subsequent decision to have my healthy breasts removed in hopes of preventing me from getting breast cancer. It seems that I have an 87% chance of contracting this form of cancer in my lifetime. If that were to happen, it would mean a second "event" of the disease showing up in my body (the first being the widespread gynecologic cancer with which I was diagnosed December before last).

Yeah, I'd rather that not happen.

Apparently, once you have cancer, you always have cancer. You may beat it into submission to the point that you have no evidence of the disease, but there's always a chance it could return. It's bad enough living with the specter of recurrence from one form of cancer showing back up; I don't need to have to worry about another one. So, I'm electing to have what is known as a prophylactic double mastectomy. What this really means is that I'm having my healthy breasts amputated as a preventative measure.

Is this what we've come to? Amputating healthy body parts? For some reason, the image of Sherrilyn Fenn's character in Boxing Helena keeps coming to mind.

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Ann Marie Giannino-Otis -- image via Genevieve Fridley

Now, I've already had my fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, cervix and part of my stomach lining removed, but, of course, those had to go as they were riddled with cancer. And I know fellow cancer thrivers who have had arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, voice boxes and more removed in order to keep cancer from spreading.

That's what we do. We do whatever it takes.

The cancer community lost an amazing advocate last week when 29-year old Bridget Mooney Spence, a fundraiser and spokesperson for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, died from the Stage IV metastatic breast cancer with which she had been diagnosed at age 21. In the close to nine years she fought to keep the disease at bay, she had ten surgeries, more than 20 different drug therapies, and participated in at least three clinical trials. She did whatever it took. She was hoping to live to see her 30th birthday. She didn't.

I got the news about Bridget as I was sitting on an exam table, wearing a hospital gown, waiting to be examined by the high risk breast specialist who would likely be performing my surgery. I struggled to hold back tears over Bridget while listening to the surgeon talk about terms such as "skin sparing," "nipple-salvaging" and "lymph node dissection." It was quite surreal.

The female members of my family, and likely one side of my extended family, will be tested for the same genetic mutation. Those testing positive will then be faced with decisions about whether or not to remove their healthy breasts and ovaries. And there's a 50% chance my daughter will be faced with the same decisions when she reaches young adulthood.

I hope that, at least by then, treatments for cancer will be as effective as treatments for other illnesses we now consider to be easily managed. I cringe to think of the alternative, and what body parts we might be amputating 18 years from now just to stay alive.

Either way, I plan to be here to see it. Whatever it takes.

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