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Angelina Jolie May Be a Star, But I Know How She Feels

Posted: 05/15/2013 5:28 pm

When Angelina Jolie's opinion piece came out in the New York Times, revealing that she had a double mastectomy followed by reconstruction, as a result of testing positive for the BRCA1 gene, there was a lot of discussion and chatter by various media outlets and by social media.

I applaud Jolie for her bravery and willingness to share her experience with the public. By doing this, she will be able to shed a greater light on breast cancer in general, and its genetic issues. Knowledge is power, and anyone going through a battle with breast cancer knows that you need to stay well informed in order to make the best decisions for your own case.

As a mother of three daughters, I can also understand where her mind was when she received the bad news. No, she didn't have breast cancer. But she had pretty high odds of getting it. With the passing of her mother, as a result of breast cancer, and at such a young age, there is no doubt in my mind how difficult it must have been to think of her own children, and the unenviable position she found herself in.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, six years ago, I was not aware of the extent of my family's history with the disease. I knew that one of my aunts had ovarian cancer, and that another also had breast cancer, but after my first surgery, a lumpectomy, more family members came out of the woodwork. As the margins were not clear after the initial surgery for the lumpectomy, I had to go back for more surgery, and had to decide whether I would have another lumpectomy or, as there were no guarantees they'd get all the cancer on the second try, go in for the mastectomy.

It was during the days of contemplation prior to my decision that I heard that not only did I have two cousins that were diagnosed with cancer when they were in their forties, five out of seven of my father's sisters had been diagnosed with breast cancer, another sister had passed away from ovarian cancer, and two out of four brothers had prostate cancer.

My decision became much more crucial. I had already decided to go for a full mastectomy, but now I needed to think of the other breast as well. It was also recommended that I go for genetic testing.

After a few months of testing and waiting for an operation date, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a gruelling 10 and a half hour operation that, first, had my oncology team in to remove the breasts, the cancer and test my lymph nodes for any sign of cancer cells that could be spreading. The second part of the operation had my plastic surgeon's team reconstructing my breasts, using tissue from my abdomen; in more medical terms, a tram flap.

It was a few years following this operation that I started genetic testing. Much of this involves a detailed family history, so that doctors can determine whether or not it's worthwhile going through the blood tests that would indicate whether I was a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. My decision to go through with the genetic testing was partly for myself, and partly because I had three daughters, and two sisters who would benefit from the information contained in my results. If I was a gene carrier, I would have a much higher chance of getting ovarian cancer, and would have another difficult decision to make. My daughters would have a much higher chance of acquiring breast cancer as well, and would be in the same situation that Jolie found herself in.

The decision was made to go through with the blood tests. I would be called back in a few weeks to get my results. During this time there were many things that went through my mind. I would have to decide, sooner rather than later, that I would have a full hysterectomy.

And I was scared -- not only for myself.

I was scared for my daughters, still so young, and their futures. What if breast cancer hits them even earlier than it hit me? I thought of the implications of carrying one, or both, of these genes. Should I get life insurance for the girls? Should I get a safety deposit box and put the results in there, only to be taken out at a much later date? If my daughters were told that I was a gene carrier, they would not be eligible for life insurance in Canada. My sisters, who were already considered high risk, because of me, would have to be tested themselves.

Even while I was afraid, my logical self also thought that, at least, I would have a clearer picture of why I got breast cancer.

It was a beautiful, but cold, sunny day in February of this year that I went to the hospital to get my results. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. In my usual take charge way, I had mentally prepared myself for any bad news. Similar to the day that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, everything was moving in slow motion. I was in a daze, but remember things in vivid detail. I was on an emotional roller coaster as I sat in that hospital waiting room. Alone.

And it was with sweaty palms, like a prisoner in court awaiting the judge to read their verdict, that I sat across from the genetics councillor to get my results. After a few bits of information, that, frankly, I don't even remember, she said the words I longed to hear: you tested negative for both genes.

Relief cannot amply describe my feelings, at that point. The information that followed was a blur as well. And when I left, my results on one piece of paper, neatly folded in my purse, I sat in my car and cried. Tears of relief, tears of gratitude and tears of joy. The emotions that had been cooped up for many months spilled out on my steering wheel and down my winter coat.

I know how it feels to be there. And even if you're a movie star, those decisions remain the same.

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  • Kathy Bates

    The actress, who beat ovarian cancer close to a decade ago, shared last month that she had been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/kathy-bates-breast-cancer-double-mastectomy_n_1878208.html">diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy</a>, The Huffington Post reported at the time. "Luckily, I don't have to undergo radiation or chemo," <a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20628972,00.html">she told <em>People</em> magazine</a>. "My family calls me Kat because I always land on my feet and thankfully this is no exception." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/kathy-bates-breast-cancer-double-mastectomy_n_1878208.html">She also shared the news on Twitter</a> -- with her signature sense of humor intact. "I don't miss my breasts as much as I miss Harry's Law. ;-) Thanks for all the sweet tweets," she wrote. "Y’all kept me going."

  • Maura Tierney

    Tierney was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, but she didn't open up publicly about it until earlier this year. "I remember thinking, 'I'm so young, this can't be happening,'" <a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20611140,00.html">she told <em>People</em> magazine</a>. "In 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and found out I would need chemotherapy," <a href="http://www.chemomythsorfacts.com/index.html">she said in a video for the Chemotherapy Myths Or Facts campaign</a>. "I asked myself all these questions and was utterly terrified, not just because of the cancer diagnosis, but the fear of chemo itself." And that sense of the unknown is what triggered Tierney, whose cancer was found in its early stages, to sign up as a spokesperson for the campaign. "It's important that you feel educated and confident during this time," <a href="http://www.chemomythsorfacts.com/index.html">she said in her introductory video</a>.

  • Judy Blume

    The beloved author of favorites such as "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," and "Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing," revealed that she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in a <a href="http://www.judyblume.com/blog.php">blog post on her website this past September</a>. "I haven’t eaten red meat in more than 30 years. I’ve never smoked, I exercise every day, forget alcohol -- it’s bad for my reflux -- I’ve been the same weight my whole adult life," <a href="http://www.judyblume.com/blog.php">she wrote</a>. "How is this possible? Well, guess what -- it’s possible." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/05/invasive-ductal-carcinoma-judy-blume-breast-cancer_n_1858418.html">Blume had a mastectomy</a> on July 30. <a href="http://www.judyblume.com/blog.php">She wrote in her blog</a>: <blockquote>As I've told my friends who've also been treated for breast cancer, I've joined The Club -- not one I wanted to join or even thought I would ever be joining -- but here I am. I’m part of this Sisterhood of the Traveling Breast Cells (apologies to Ann Brashares). Medical diagnoses can leave you feeling alone and scared. When it comes to breast cancer you’re not alone, and scary though it is, there’s a network of amazing women to help you through it.</blockquote>

  • Ann Romney

    Wife to Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, Ann was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/03/ann-romney-breast-cancer_n_1475950.html">diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2009</a>. "It's great to have loved ones around you," <a href="http://www.americasradionewsnetwork.com/ann-romney-reflects-on-her-personal-battle-with-breast-cancer">she told America's Radio News Network in an interview</a> earlier this year of where she found post-diagnosis comfort. "And you just fight these battles, listen you don't fight them alone. You fight them with friends and with family. And you put your arms around each other and you move forward." Romney, whose mother and grandmother died from ovarian cancer and whose great-grandmother died from breast cancer, told the program <a href="http://www.americasradionewsnetwork.com/uploads/mp3/showclips/05-03-12ANNROMNEY1.mp3">she's most grateful to have been diagnosed early</a> -- she needed surgery and radiation, but not chemo. "Life is an interesting game, and you just always deal with whatever you're dealt with that day or that week or that month or that year," said Romney, who has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/18/multiple-sclerosis-celebrities_n_1606174.html">also been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis</a>. "No matter what you're living through, we all push forward."

  • Edie Falco

    The TV star was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, when she was starring in "The Sopranos." "I take very good care of myself (mostly because I didn’t many years ago), and that served me well during chemo," <a href="http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20411264,00.html">she later wrote in an article for <em>Health</em> magazine</a>. "Running every day made me feel calm and strong, even as my self-image suffered from my hair falling out." After her cancer went into remission, Falco decided to adopt -- her baby boy, Anderson, was born in January 2005. She later <a href="http://www.redbookmag.com/fun-contests/celebrity/edie-falco-nurse-jackie">adopted a daughter</a>, as well. "Obviously, it wasn’t meant for me to die of cancer at 40," <a href="http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20411264_2,00.html">she wrote</a> in <em>Health</em>. "Every day my life surprises me, just like my cancer diagnosis surprised me."

  • Suzanne Somers

    The "Three's Company" and "Step By Step" actress was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. "We were silent, hardly talking, in disbelief, like this can't be happening, wondering is this a little blip or the end of my life?" <a href="http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20134247,00.html">she told <em>People</em> magazine in 2001</a>, of hearing the news for the first time with her husband Alan Hamel. Just earlier this year -- more than a decade since her diagnosis -- Somers shared with <em>People</em> that she <a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20567432,00.html">underwent an experimental breast reconstruction surgery</a>, to repair the damage from a lumpectomy and radiation treatments.

  • Olivia Newton-John

    The "Grease" star and singer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 after feeling a lump in a self exam -- <a href="http://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/OliviaNewtonJohn.html">her treatment included</a> surgery, chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy and reconstruction. "When you're first diagnosed, people are pulling you in every direction: Do this! Do that! You really have to gather yourself, because you're the one who has to make the hard choices," <a href="http://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/OliviaNewtonJohn.html">she said in a Q&A on Susan G. Komen For The Cure's website</a>. "I researched a lot and felt satisfied with my course of treatment. It was sort of an East-meets-West approach." And that meant taking care of her <em>whole</em> body, not just the cancer. "I did everything I could to take care of myself -- body, mind, and spirit," <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/breast-cancer/mylife/olivia-newton-john/questions.aspx">she told EverydayHealth.com</a>. "I look at my cancer journey as a gift: It made me slow down and realize the important things in life and taught me to not sweat the small stuff."

  • Giuliana Rancic

    The 36-year-old "E! News" host announced last October on<a href="http://theclicker.today.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/10/17/8363134-es-giuliana-rancic-reveals-she-has-breast-cancer" target="_hplink"> NBC's Today show</a> that she has breast cancer, and that she was alerted to the cancer via a mammogram during her third in vitro fertilization attempt. "Through my attempt to get pregnant for the third time, we sadly found out that I have early stages of breast cancer," she said <a href="http://theclicker.today.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/10/17/8363134-es-giuliana-rancic-reveals-she-has-breast-cancer" target="_hplink">on the Today show</a>. "It's been a shock. A lot of people have been asking, we saw that you went and got IVF, are you pregnant? But sadly, we've had to put that off." Rancic underwent a double lumpectomy and removal of several of her lymph nodes, but she later went on the TODAY show last December to say that the cancer was not completely cleared by those treatments and that she will <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/double-mastectomy-giuliana-rancic-breast-cancer_n_1129433.html" target="_hplink">undergo a double mastectomy</a>. This year, Rancic finally got her happy ending, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/edward-duke-rancic-photo-giuliana-bill-rancic-baby-boy_n_1876694.html">with the birth of son Edward Duke</a> via gestational surrogate on August 29.

  • Wanda Sykes

    In a 2011 interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes revealed that she had been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/23/wanda-sykes-breast-cancer_n_977761.html#s312402&title=Wanda_Sykes" target="_hplink">diagnosed with breast cancer</a> and underwent a double mastectomy. "I had breast cancer. Yeah, I know it's scary," Sykes said in the interview. "This was in February. I went for the reduction. I had real big boobs and I just got tired of knocking over stuff. Every time I eat ... Oh lord. I'd carry a Tide stick everywhere I go. My back was sore so it was time to have a reduction." After the reduction, the pathology report found ductal carcinoma in situ in her left breast, which prompted Skykes, who has a <a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20531010,00.html" target="_hplink">family history of breast cancer</a>, to opt for a double mastectomy. And while the diagnosis is scary, she hasn't lost her <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/23/wanda-sykes-breast-cancer_n_977761.html#s312402&title=Wanda_Sykes" target="_hplink">signature humor</a>. "I was like, 'I don't know, should I talk about it or what?' How many things could I have? I'm black, then lesbian. I can't be the poster child for everything ... At least with the LGBT issues we get a parade, we get a float, it's a party. [But] I was real hesitant about doing this, because I hate walking. I got a lot of [cancer] walks coming up."

  • Christina Applegate

    In 2008, actress Christina Applegate shared in a "Good Morning America" interview that she had been <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=5606034&page=1" target="_hplink">diagnosed with breast cancer</a> at the age of 36 -- she opted for a bilateral mastectomy instead of radiation or chemotherapy. "I didn't want to go back to the doctors every four months for testing and squishing and everything. I just wanted to kind of get rid of this whole thing for me. This was the choice that I made and it was a tough one," she said <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=5606034&page=1" target="_hplink">in the interview</a>. "Sometimes, you know, I cry. And sometimes I scream. And I get really angry. And I get really upset, you know, into wallowing in self-pity sometimes. And I think that it's all part of the healing." Perhaps the best healing of all came in 2011 when Applegate gave birth to baby Sadie with musician Martyn LeNoble. "She's healed me in so many ways. She's just made my life so much better. I've been kind of sad for a long time, and she's just opened my whole soul," Applegate <a href="http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20467525,00.html" target="_hplink">told <em>People</em></a> in an exclusive interview in 2011.

  • Melissa Etheridge

    In 2005, rock-and-roll artist Etheridge underwent a lumpectomy and five rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to eradicate her breast cancer. "I had been running along in my life at a fast pace. When I heard it was cancer, I just stood still," Etheridge told <em>Shape</em> magazine in a 2009 interview. "My life passed over me like a big wave, and after, I was left there standing. This turned out to be a very good thing. I stopped. I looked at my life, I looked at my body and spirit." In the midst of her treatment, Etheridge found out she was <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6994469/ns/dateline_nbc/t/melissa-etheridges-brave-comeback/" target="_hplink">nominated for a Grammy</a> for her song "Breathe" -- and while she wasn't sure she'd make an appearance at first, Etheridge ultimately decided not only to attend, but to perform in a Janis Joplin tribute. Taking to the stage bald and with no eyebrows -- a side-effect of the chemo -- she belted out Joplin's classic, "Piece Of My Heart." "It was very special that I had been presented with a day, that I could come back into this entertainment world, and show everyone that you are back and okay, and thought, okay," Etheridge told <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6994469/ns/dateline_nbc/t/melissa-etheridges-brave-comeback/" target="_hplink">MSNBC at the time</a>. "I'm going to do this. And I'm not gonna be afraid of the truth. The truth is, yes I had cancer. Yes, I got it out of me. Yes, I went through chemotherapy. Yes, I'm bald." Check out Etheridge's breast cancer causes on her <a href="http://www.melissaetheridge.com/pinkpage" target="_hplink">Pink Rage website</a>.

  • Robin Roberts

    ABC's "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. "I never thought I'd be writing this. ... <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/CancerPreventionAndTreatment/abcs-robin-roberts-breast-cancer/story?id=3430554" target="_hplink">I have breast cancer</a>," she said in a message released by ABC in August 2007. While working on a tribute to her colleague Joel Siegel, who had died from cancer, Robins reported on how key early detection is -- and, taking her own advice, she did a self breast exam and found a lump. "Much as I was hoping the doctor would say it was nothing, she did a biopsy and confirmed that the lump I'd found was indeed an early form of breast cancer," Robins <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/CancerPreventionAndTreatment/abcs-robin-roberts-breast-cancer/story?id=3430554" target="_hplink">continued in her statement</a>. Robins underwent a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. In 2008, she told <em>People</em> magazine that she <a href="http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20238177,00.html" target="_hplink">complemented her regular doctor's visits</a> with acupuncture, exercise and advice from a nutritionist. "Yes, I am living with cancer," she <a href="http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20238177,00.html" target="_hplink">told <em>People</em></a>. "But don't go 'woe is me.' I don't want it. Don't need it. I'm still in the game. I don't want to say 'survivor.' I want to thrive." Earlier this year, Roberts announced that she was diagnosed with a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/20/bone-marrow-transplant-robin-roberts-myelodysplastic-syndrome_n_1900324.html">rare blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome</a>.

  • Kylie Minogue

    Australian singer Minogue was first diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2005 and underwent surgery and chemotherapy treatment. "When you are stripped of everything and you have to grow your eyelashes back, grow your hair back, it's just astonishing," Minogue told British <em>Glamour</em> magazine. "It's hard to express what I've learned from that, but a deep psychological and emotional shift has obviously taken place." This open and honest approach to her diagnosis led Minogue to be voted the <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/09/03/us-cancer-celebrities-idUSTRE6820P120100903" target="_hplink">most inspirational breast cancer celebrity</a> in an online British-based poll, Reuters reports.

  • Sheryl Crow

    Singer Sheryl Crow was <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2006-10-06/health/crow.cancer_1_breast-cancer-early-detection-cancer-patients?_s=PM:HEALTH" target="_hplink">diagnosed with breast cancer</a> in 2006 and, thanks to early detection, underwent a minimally invasive surgery and seven weeks of radiation therapy. Crow told <em>Health</em> magazine that <a href="http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20411904_2,00.html" target="_hplink">she saw a nutritionist</a> when she was first diagnosed and began a diet full of fish, walnuts, colorful vegetables, fiber and healthy spices. "I kept my breast cancer tattoos -- where the radiation was lined up on my chest," Crow told <em>Health</em>. "Once in a while I look at it to remind myself that I have to put on my oxygen mask first before I put it on anybody else." Today, Crow is focused on spreading the message of early detection. In 2010, she <a href="http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2010/08/sheryl-crow-opsns-breast-cancer-imaging-center-/1" target="_hplink">founded the Sheryl Crow Center</a> as part of the Pink Lotus Breast Center, which was founded by her own surgeon, ABC News reports. This past June, Crow also revealed that she was diagnosed late last year with a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/benign-brain-tumor-sheryl-crow_n_1572008.html">benign brain tumor</a>.

  • Cynthia Nixon

    In 2008, the "Sex and the City" star went public with her <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/04/15/cynthia-nixon-on-her-love_n_96749.html" target="_hplink">cancer diagnosis</a>, revealing that she found a lump in its early stages and had it removed through radiation, The Huffington Post reported at the time. Nixon wrote in a 2008 <em>Newsweek</em> article that her mother was <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/10/03/a-family-of-strong-women.html" target="_hplink">diagnosed with breast cancer twice</a> -- the first time, Nixon was just 13. "I feel like I have a very <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/03/slideshow_n_991609.html#s384104&title=Cynthia_Nixon" target="_hplink">concrete story to tell</a>. My story isn't just my story, it's mine and my mother's story," the <a href="http://ww5.komen.org/" target="_hplink">Susan G. Komen for the Cure</a> spokesperson has said.

 

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