Opinion: A tough decision proves fateful
When I was 19 years old, I found out that my mom had cancer. She had known for some time, but only when surgery was imminent did she tell us of her diagnosis, during a routine exam, of lung cancer. She was 50, and had quit smoking the year before. The subsequent surgery left her with one fully operating lung, a horror movie scar from one end of her chest to the next, follow-up radiation, nerve damage, burning and scarring. We all felt blessed she was alive.
Within a few years my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and had her breast removed. A few years later, another diagnosis of breast cancer of a different variety, and they removed the other breast. In the following years she dealt with bladder cancer and the ultimate killer: a large sarcoma on her chest.
Words cannot describe the pain and anxiety of watching my mother valiantly try to fight the disease, nor the depth of sadness when she succumbed to it in 1995, at 1:52 p.m., on her favorite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving Day. I was six weeks pregnant with our first and only daughter, Alex, devastated by the fact that the skin of my mom and my daughter would never make physical contact and that my daughter would never know the joy of spending time with this great lady. Despite 14 years of worrying about losing my mom, nothing could have prepared me for the depth of that sorrow.
Over the next 20 years, both of my mom’s sisters and one cousin died of breast cancer. In 2013, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and has courageously endured two years of medical process and treatment to treat it. Another cousin died of cancer and yet another cousin is also fighting it.
What took me so long to get tested for the cancer genes? Probably because I kept telling myself, “You are physically more like your Dad than your Mom,” “You eat so healthy and exercise regularly,” and even, “You don’t have a cancer personality.” Plus, I was under thorough routine surveillance — mammograms, ultrasounds and breast MRIs.
And yet this past fall, following my sister’s decision to get genetically screened and finding she carried a cancer gene of Eastern European descent, I opted to follow suit. Sure enough, I tested positive for the gene, but doctors told me they weren’t 100 percent sure of the statistical category it put me in to actually get cancer — they just knew it is linked to breast cancer. I wanted the choice to be easy — I wanted someone to tell me, “This means you will get breast cancer.”
But the choice was not easy. In fact, my doctors said that given our family history, a prophylactic mastectomy would be an option, but that stringent routine surveillance meant we would catch anything early. But after seeing my sister so recently battle cancer with chemotherapy after a mastectomy, I wasn’t feeling good about the prospects of early detection.
So last fall I made my decision, and in February I had both breasts removed; after a few additional procedures, I’ve now completed reconstructive surgery.
For me, the decision to go through with my surgery was about listening to the option that most spoke the word “LIFE.” I was haunted for a while with questions like, “Am I overreacting?” “Is this really necessary?” “Am I just driving up health care costs?” And I was scared to amputate a part of my body, to lose the breasts that had nursed my baby and that — even though I had complained about them ruthlessly when I was 13 and had said, “Is that all you got?” in the bathroom mirror — I came to appreciate just as they were.
I got an answer to those questions one week after the surgery, when the pathology tests came in. The surgeon bounded into the room, saying, “I have great news for you!” I started to tear up, sure she was going to tell us that I was all clear on both sides and in the nodes — after all, I had just had a clean mammogram, MRI and ultrasound.
Instead, she said, “You were cancer positive in both breasts.” Mark, my husband, and I burst into tears. Shock, confusion, and relief all descended on me. Shock at the news I had not expected. Confusion at how I could have had cancer in both breasts when my mammogram, MRI and ultrasound all came back clear. And relief that, because I was stage 0, I would need no follow-up treatment and had an incredibly small statistical chance of breast cancer ever again.
Because I believe in telling my own story rather than letting others tell it for me, I spoke openly about my decision to undergo a mastectomy to my friends, colleagues and the 600 employees at Green Mountain Power, where I serve as CEO. I’m so glad that I did; the outpouring of support was overwhelming, but so was the number of people who told me their own stories of cancer and other life-changing diseases. I learned that in telling my story, others felt empowered to share theirs, and in the process we can raise awareness that can help save lives.
I feel like the luckiest woman in Vermont.
Mary Powell is CEO of Green Mountain Power.
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