It’s hard to explain exactly when I became aware of the role cancer played in my life. My grandmother passed away from breast cancer when my mother was only 12. Every few months, it seemed, we learned of another family member who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Unfortunately, most of them passed away from the disease, most of them before the age of 40.
Growing up in this environment, it’s not surprising that cancer was an ever-present part of my life. I always assumed that I would get cancer, because that’s what happened to women in my family. And when my own mother was diagnosed when I was 12, it wasn’t a surprise.
There are many things that are etched in my memory. I remember my mom sitting my brother, sister and I down and having us feel the lump in her breast. As a preteen, that was a mortifying thing to do. But my mom knew that we needed to know what to look for, because she also knew that this was something that ran in our family, and she wanted us to be prepared. And I’ll never forget what that little lump felt like. It was like a frozen pea.
I remember her treatments – chemo and radiation, surgeries, being so sick that she couldn’t get out of bed. But what stands out the most is that she became the first woman in her family to survive. She’s been diagnosed three more times since then, and has survived each. It was after her most recent diagnosis, in 2006, that she had a genetic test. The test showed that she carried a mutation on the BRCA1 gene. Given that the mutation is genetic, she most certainly inherited it from her own mother.
Having a mutation on the BRCA1 gene means that a woman has an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. In the general population, a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is 12 percent, and ovarian cancer 1.5 percent. For mutation carriers, the risk of developing breast cancer can be as high as 87 percent, and ovarian cancer 54 percent. (Women who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but no identified genetic mutation, face a slightly higher risk than those in the general population, and are still considered high risk.)
I had the genetic testing done in 2007, and in the summer of that year, I discovered that I also carried the mutation. This put me into a whole new world – one that didn’t involve me being a cancer fighter or survivor, but still having cancer be a huge part of my life. I struggled with decisions about having a preventive mastectomy, or having my ovaries removed. But the idea of having multiple MRIs, mammograms, ultrasounds and clinical visits a year was overwhelming. Questions about fertility, body image, femininity and my own mortality – these are questions that are rarely faced by women in their late 20s, and yet I was forced to face them with this mutation.
Despite the difficulties, however, I don’t regret it. In a strange way, knowing about this mutation has given me comfort. I know that our family isn’t cursed – there’s a scientific reason why generations of my family have been afflicted by cancer. And regardless of how hard the decisions are, I have the opportunity to make choices, when generations before me haven’t even had that opportunity. And that’s worth it.
Angela Smith is the founder of the Vermont chapter of Bright Pink, a non-profit with an exclusive focus on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women. She is passionate about educating women about their breast and ovarian health and empowering them to be their brightest and boldest selves. Professionally, Angela is the Director of Human Resources and Career Services at Burlington College. She is a sought-after writer and speaker known as an expert in career development and employment. She has written for The Daily Muse, Forbes, Mashable, and LearnVest, among other publications. In 2012, she was named one of Vermont’s “40 People Under 40” to watch by Vermont Business Magazine, and received an Outstanding Alumni Award from Johnson State College in 2013.