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Genetic testing for cancer, and other fun stories

“I want you to get genetic testing to determine your risk for cancer,” my mother said.

Lunches with her used to be enjoyable. I’d talk about my latest tattoo or piercing. She’d innocently invite me to church. Then I hit middle age and she started eating dinner at 4 p.m.; now our talks often take a turn toward the morose.

End of life plans. Who will and will not be invited to whose funeral. The benefits of fiber.

Good times.

Her sister, my aunt, fought uterine cancer last year. She’s been in remission since November. At some point, these two hens started worrying about the next generation and decided I’d be the first for genetic testing.

Something to do with nerves of steel, sense of humor. Whatever.

Sign me up. I like to know more, rather than less, about everything. What’s up with these special creatures who DON’T want to know? When aware you’re carrying some crappy gene, you can take measures to detect cancer earlier than you otherwise would, which is better than discovering it years later when cancer has spread damn near everywhere.

Ignoring it doesn’t make any sense. People ignored dubstep in the beginning and now we need a cure for that, too.

Plus, I have children and my health affects them. We need to know what they’ve inherited from me, besides the ability to turn awkward silence into an art form.

I called Moffitt Cancer Center, my local hospital/research/prevention center, and made the appointment. They couldn’t see me for six months. Apparently genetic testing is a lot like the new Apple Watch – trendy, with an end result that could seriously suck.

Finally, the day arrived.

The test itself was only a blood draw, but beforehand the counselor wanted a detailed family medical history. This was a fun conversation, with charts and everything. First we discussed mom’s side of the family — where large hips, strong jaws, and mean streaks reign supreme.

Dad’s side was a bit more complex.

I hardly knew the man and his family is a complete mystery. Bio Dad had two aunts who died of breast cancer. His brother was still alive, according to recent mug shots, as well as that brother’s son. I don’t have any contact with them. Court orders, and all.

The genetics counselor didn’t have a chart for my particular situation, so they took blood and sent me on my way.

Last week, we reunited to discuss results.

I have an elevated risk for breast cancer, they told me, nearly double the risk of the regular population.

I took a deep breath. Like when I’m in Wal-Mart’s parking lot at 2 a.m. in desperate need of feminine products. There’s a slight sense of dread over what could happen, but I didn’t know enough yet to be truly alarmed.

I didn’t freak out. I have an elevated risk for lots of things — heart disease, macular degeneration, punching people. Yet here I am: able to outrun teenage sons, read warning labels on fireworks and there are practically no restraining orders against me.

Plus…combine this with incredible cheekbones and now I have TWO things in common with Angelina Jolie.

On the other hand, a genetic predisposition to breast cancer is not good news.

Word spreads quickly, and I received numerous calls and texts expressing sympathy. Too bad I’m off Facebook; at least a dozen prayer circles are calling my name. I’m hearing lots of thoughts about prophylactic mastectomies – the removal of breasts to reduce the risk of cancer.

Everyone has an opinion. I almost started a Twitter conversation to keep it all straight: #shouldtheystayorshouldtheygonow.

Too soon?

For the first time in over 26 years together, my husband fixed himself a drink.

More testing is in order. My risk goes up or stays the same depending on what happens with mom.

If she tests positive for the gene mutation, called Chek2, then I inherited it from her. Finally, we have something in common. Since breast cancer isn’t really a thing on her side, my risk stays put. I’ll have to feel myself up more often every month and add MRIs to the yearly mammogram treat, but that’s about all for now.

If mom tests negative, then I inherited the gene mutation from Bio Dad.

Along with a forehead that makes drive-in theatres jealous.

Inheriting this sickly form of Chek2 from his side of the family is problematic because there aren’t enough female relatives in Bio Dad’s branches to truly know my risk factors. Besides me and my sister, there aren’t any women at all.

The counselor waved her pen over all the blank spaces and said, “So this side of the family…”

“Is as useless as they’ve always been,” I said.

If Bio Dad’s parents had given birth to a girl, or his brother a daughter, not only would Michelob have more customers, we’d also know a lot more. According to the counselor, if they’d lived cancer-free my risk would stay the same. If these imaginary women had been diagnosed with breast cancer? My risk could be as high as 50 percent.

But they don’t exist. So we don’t know.

When mom gets her results back – I’ll decide what to do.

Until then, I’ve started walking around the house announcing, “Elevated risk for cancer here. I’m going to need you to go ahead and refill this drink – then cook your own goddamn supper.”


“Yes, we should all see Swan Lake as a family. I might be gone someday.”

You get the idea.

Prophylactic mastectomies are a big deal. So is cancer. #shouldtheystayorshouldtheygonow?

Stay tuned.