My sister Lori and I hugged, cried and pumped our fists in victory as we crossed the finish line, having walked 39.3 miles through Santa Barbara for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. I'd walked, run, cycled and climbed thousands of miles for various causes -- some very dear to me, and others just because I could -- but this meant the most, because it was in honor of our sister Dina, who is bravely and successfully battling Stage IV breast cancer.
Dina was diagnosed with cancer on the very same day that our mom passed away, after a two-year fight with esophageal cancer. Two months prior to that, an on-again, off-again relationship that I'd been in for nearly 15 years had ended, breaking my heart and shattering my dream of living in Alaska with a man I had believed was the love of my life. It was a devastating period of time, and my life felt like it was crumbling around me.
Based upon our family history, my sister's doctors did a BRCA test. A woman with a BRCA mutation has a 50-85 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, a 27 percent increased risk of developing ovarian cancer with a BRCA2 mutation, and as high as a 54 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer with a BRCA1 mutation. Dina tested positive for BRCA2.
It's scary to think that any of us might be walking around with that little strand of mutated DNA that can turn us into a potential walking time bomb, and that along with our blue eyes, or long legs or dark hair, we pass those crappy odds of cancer right on along to our kids. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens, which is why I, Lori, our brother -- and potentially our children -- needed to be tested. The odds are 50/50 of inheriting the mutation. I never win anything except the occasional game of Words with Friends, but I won the unlucky genetic lottery. I tested positive for BRCA2.
I climb mountains for fun. Big mountains. Seven Summits mountains. I know how to make a plan and to summon a will of steel from deep inside to get things done -- and to get them done quickly, so I sprang into action. I guess some people might say that it's just a way of not dealing with my emotions; that it's easier to just keep busy -- to do something, instead of to feel something. The truth is, I didn't feel like I was about to fall apart. I didn't feel like I was in denial -- I just wanted to do what I had to do to get back to the business of life. I wanted to worry about what I was going to wear to my oldest son's wedding and which college my youngest son would attend in the fall. I wanted to get back to work. I didn't want to worry about my breasts and my ovaries trying to kill me, and I wanted to put this whole nasty BRCA business behind me as quickly as I could. I couldn't bring my mom back, I couldn't cure my sister's cancer and I couldn't bring the guy back -- but I could control this part of my life.
When I walked into the Pink Lotus Breast Center for my consultation with Dr. Kristi Funk, I'd pretty much already decided what I wanted to do. Dr. Funk carefully and compassionately explained all of my options -- including hyper-vigilant screening, but in my heart, I knew that I wanted to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy and oophorectomy. It's not an easy decision, and as Angelina Jolie wrote when she disclosed that she'd made the same decision, it's not the right choice for everyone. But for Angelina, and for me, as it turned out, it felt like the right choice. I did not want to live in fear of finding a lump in my breast. I didn't want to experience the anxiety of waiting for a CA-125 test to come back positive for ovarian cancer that had already spread. In my mind, there was only one choice.
For everything we think we know, or think we understand, and for all the times we imagine how we'd react in a given situation or if given unexpected news, I'm here to tell you that you actually don't know. You can't. Until it happens.
A few days before Thanksgiving, my beloved golden retriever, Buckley, who was my constant companion for 12 years and my hiking buddy on many of my adventures, passed away unexpectedly from hemangiosarcoma, a cancer of the lining of the blood cells. I was devastated and heartbroken. I had taken comfort in the fact that Buckley would be lying at the foot of my bed while I recovered from surgery, and now he was gone. I was so grief-stricken, that when Dr. Funk's office called the following afternoon, it took a moment to process the news.
My presurgical MRI had picked up something suspicious. Dr. Funk wanted to see me. She seemed a little surprised by the radiology report, so I wasn't very worried as she moved the cold ultrasound wand around the area of my breast that the report had highlighted. Frankly, I was antsy to just get out of there. My son was starring in his high school play, President Obama was in town and I was terrified that they'd close the streets and I'd be trapped in Beverly Hills and miss my son's closing performance as Danny Zuko in "Grease."
Whatever appeared on the ultrasound did not have the usual markings of cancer, but Dr. Funk decided to do a biopsy anyway. After removing a few tissue samples, her demeanor completely changed. She confessed that from what she could feel as she removed the tissue, she was concerned. Now I felt sick to my stomach. Even with my son's play and a celebratory dinner that night, it was the longest night of my life until Dr. Funk called the next morning with the biopsy results.
The pathology confirmed invasive cancer in my right breast. I was shocked. I felt like I should cry, but I didn't. It all just seemed crazy. Thank God I'd already made up my mind to remove my breasts and ovaries as opposed to the screening option -- so I didn't have to wrap my head around the idea of that --but let's be honest; it adds a whole new component when you add "The Big C."
On the day of my youngest son's 18th birthday, I had my double mastectomy. It was a strange feeling to think that 18 years before I was in the very same hospital for one of the most joyous occasions of my life, and here I was today to have my breasts removed. But I was surrounded by loved ones, and I knew that when I woke up, my breast cancer, and any chance of future breast cancer, would be gone. Even though my choice had been stolen by the cancer cells, I knew I was one of the lucky ones. My cancer had been detected early, and what would have been an epically worse journey without the BRCA test (and would most likely have included chemo and radiation, which I was incredibly fortunate to escape) would be near its end.
I was out on a local trail five days after my surgery, and two weeks after, I climbed 10,069-foot Mt. Baldy. I climbed it again two weeks after my oophorectomy, because that's what I do on Sundays. It was also my way of flipping the bird to breast cancer.
I totally get that it seems a little extreme to climb a mountain two weeks after a mastectomy. But it was important to me. I am determined not to let breast cancer define who I am. And while I went out and climbed a mountain as soon as my body told me it was ready, someone else might just choose to walk their dog, or make pancakes or work in the garden, because that's what they do on Sunday. It's a different thing for everyone. But there is tremendous power in taking control of what happens next -- and in getting back to a sense of normalcy.
I've always lived in a glass half-full world, and I'm very aware of how lucky and blessed I am. I'm grateful for whatever comes my way -- both good and bad because I know it makes me who I am and leads me to wherever it is I'm meant to go next. I've gotten really good at taking life's lemons and making lemonade. It's just that this time, it will be pink lemonade.