Monday, May 27, 2013

Cancer Bombs: Death Math

[Note: The first of genetic testing and prophylactic mastectomy series can be found here. All previous (and subsequent) installments of this series can be found here.]

This would be where it begins to get morbid (heh).

July 2011.

Paperwork arrived. Sheets stapled together, a family history questionnaire straight from the genetics department from a hospital in the city, and they wanted it back ASAP.

More than once the instructions indicated that they (the all-knowing geneticists) understood that I might not be able to gather all the information required, or precise dates of diagnosis or death—and that was okay. The more I could provide, the better, of course. They needed a good estimate but understood that some things are lost with time... you know, especially when your ancestors had a penchant for dying on you before you'd met them...

My answering thought? Challenge accepted!

I grabbed my address book, flipped to the calendar for important dates at the back, and began copying births and deaths and all the sundry info I’d accumulated—mostly straight out of my mother’s old address book. (She’d written down everything. Births, moving days, burials, anniversaries, the date our 19 year-old cat had died... lovely.)

Of course, this didn’t cover everything. There was a good six years between Mom’s last entry and my filling out this questionnaire, but I have skillz tools.

Quickly, I ran to the Batmobile, my trusty steed, my laptop and logged onto Facebook, and basically creeped the profiles of my relatives, garnering birth dates and estimating pertinent information. (Dudes, you should NOT post that shit on a public forum like Facebook—someone could use it for nefarious reasons! Sheesh!)

Then I emailed one aunt to find out the rest.

Dad’s side? Done.

Mom’s side, well, that was another thing. Pretty much everyone before me on my mother’s side had been obliterated by cancer, after all... kinda sorta the whole paradoxical reason behind the paperwork I was filling out, remember?

So I did what anyone blessed with having one side of her family wiped out would do—I called up the cousin who’s into genealogy (hi, Neil!), and had him walk me through the branches of our (dying) family tree.

It was... depressing.

Here’s the thing: I have always believed that breast cancer wasn’t an if, but a when.

I would get it. It was just a matter of time.

So after filling out the questionnaire’s chart and mailing it off to the hospital to find out whether I qualified for genetic counseling (and subsequent testing), I decided to do a little paperwork of my own...

I present to you: Death Math. (It sounds way cooler than it really is, trust.)

I’m not that great at The Maths—I really only have to be better than my seven-year-old, after all—but this was pretty simple, even for me.

Since I was certain I would develop breast cancer, I examined the situations of my two closest relatives who had had it—my mother and my father’s sister—because they were the closest to contemporaries I had, and were a realistic reference to current medical treatment.

(Yes, I get that this is an exorbitantly small pool for statistical data, and that there are many details factoring into my relatives' cases that would likely be different from my own scenario—but this is my corner of the Interwebs, so humour me.)

These women had both been diagnosed with breast cancer relatively young (ages 41 and 42, respectively), and both of them had beat it. At the time of this... experiment... I was 32. So I figured I had a few years before I needed to panic.

Convinced I would have cancer, and using their history as an indicator of what to expect, I was confident I’d beat it the first go ‘round, since Death Math shows a 100% survival rate.

But both women ended up with completely separate cancers, about 15 to 18 years later. Chance of second battle? Death Math says 100%.

And only one survived the second round, which means Death Math indicates a 50% survival rate after battling cancer twice.

Not. Cool.

15 to 18 years of panic, wondering if this time would be the mammogram of doom?! Pardon me, but fuck that shit...

Also? It was about here that I decided fighting the good fight twice with the potential of losing at all was pretty craptacular.

And then I gave my head a shake, because: who the hell wants cancer even ONCE?!

I’d seen what my mother went through firsthand. I watched my father cater and falter during her care. As a family, we were grieving before she’d even died, having tragically accepted what could not be changed.

What else was there to do, but eat the shit sandwich life feeds you? You deal. It gives you indigestion, but you swallow it anyway.

But the Death Math suddenly made me not want to deal—or at least not accept my fate passively.

In November of 2009, at the age of 30, I’d found a lump in my breast. It was painful, and I knew from watching my mother that painful meant really good (on the “is it cancer?!” scale) or really really bad (on the same scale).

Thankfully it was a blocked duct, which was leftover from weaning my son almost two years earlier.

Yes, read that again: almost two years earlier.

My boys are 17 months apart in age. My boobs had gone from pregnant (pre-milk production) to nursing (milk production) to pregnant (pre-milk production) to nursing (milk production), with no real weaning in between.

As my then-doctor so quaintly put it, my body "never learned to properly shut off the taps.”

That singular heart-stopping, stomach-churning brush with “this is it!” was as close as I wanted to get to actually having breast cancer. Two small boys (our oldest was four at the time), and a husband possibly left to care for them on his own?

My gut screamed, “CUT THE TITS OFF!”

We’d finished adding to our family and I was done with them anyway, right? They’d served their purpose well, and I was a big girl—breasts didn’t embody my femininity, my identity, or any aspect of my self-image.

I could move on without them...

Stoically, my husband supported whatever I wanted and needed. My doctor (rightly) said I was overreacting. And since an ultrasound proved that apparently my left tit simply has abominable taste in practical jokes, we walked away from the experience shaken, but whole.

So in July of 2011, in the wake of filling out the geneticists' family history questionnaire and staring at the Death Math in all its ridiculous glory, one image kept replaying in my mind...

The moment from two years earlier, when my husband was overcome with quiet—a mix of determination and sadness—as my whisper revealed that innocent-yet-painful lump.

He had signed up for this, and he knew it. He wasn’t going anywhere, despite knowing what was coming for me.

I couldn’t do that to him.

I had no idea yet where the genetic testing might lead, but it had to be somewhere better than what the Death Math foretold.

And let's face it: I'm a crazy bitch, and crazy bitches never go down easy...

[Note: The next post in this series can be found here.]


  1. EricisnotagiantsquidMay 27, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    Two words: Bazonga cancer. I figure if a lady's gotta deal with lumps in her lady humps, the least she could do is make others a tad uncomfortable. Maybe wiggle 'em a bit while saying, "These suckers. Lefty let me down a bit. I may hafta let her go. Righty's on my shit list too. If she doesn't shape up soon..." People will think you are crazy, have a good attitude, or back away slowly.

  2. Attitude makes the whole difference. We've Alzheimer's running rampantly through both side of the family. I'll go down kicking and screaming.

  3. Agreed, madam. You kick and scream, and I'll cheer you on. :)

  4. BAHAhahaa! ::snort:: This comment Eric? This right here? ^ This is EXACTLY why I'm so happy your cyberspace wanderings wound your way to my little blog. Thank you, sir. :)

  5. EricisnotagiantsquidMay 27, 2013 at 4:46 PM

    Oh, no problem. I'm already thinking of a comment to leave for next Monday's post. Perhaps a conversation between Lefty & Righty. It should be titillating.

  6. Titillating. ::gigglesnort::