I never imagined every woman in my family would get breast cancer. It started in 1998 when my aunt was diagnosed at 58-years-old. In 2010, my mom was diagnosed at 65. Two years later, my cousin (my aunt’s daughter) was diagnosed at 42 with Stage 1 Triple Negative breast cancer, the most aggressive and fastest-growing type. Had it been discovered just a year later, it would have grown to Stage 4. I joined the club in 2014, just two weeks shy of my 35th birthday. All four of us tested negative for the BRCA gene mutation.
In the simplest terms, that’s code for the BReast CAncer gene and is split into two categories: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Though we all have BRCA genes, they are believed to increase a person’s chances of developing the disease when mutated. Dr. Sunil Hingorani, a family friend and pancreatic cancer specialist, once told me “It doesn’t mean there isn’t a gene link, it just means they haven’t found the gene yet.” Eek. Then I thought, “Oh, maybe they’ll name it after us. Cool. Wait. Nope, not cool.”
After being told we weren’t BRCA gene mutation carriers, I morphed into a boob spy named Erin Boobivich to investigate exactly what the culprit was. My cousin believes it has something to do with the water in Connecticut. Not only had each of us lived there for at least 30 years prior to our diagnosis (Boobivich knows her number-crunching); it’s also home to some of the country’s highest breast cancer rates. My brother thinks the microwave we grew up using is to blame. My mom thinks my aunt got it from eating too much barbecue. I’m convinced it has something to do with potato chips. (What?! They’re a carcinogen! I read an article once and now I don’t eat potato chips). Okay, that’s the extent of my research, but it could be all or any of those things, plus a bag of genes.
Reasoning aside, what’s really worth sharing goes beyond statistics. Ultimately, breast cancer completely changed our lives collectively and individually. And while it’s important to share the commonalities weaved throughout, our individual experiences carry lessons that should be amplified, too.
1998: My Aunt Veena
My aunt, who left India for America in the ’70s, was diagnosed with HER2 neu positive, a very aggressive type of breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy (aka breast-conserving surgery that removes abnormal tissue) and more than 20 lymph nodes removed to determine if it had spread throughout her body. This was followed by debilitating chemotherapy that left her extremely ill for months. From the outside, you could never tell she was in pain because her sense of humor made cancer seem fun. She was always upbeat and cracking super inappropriate jokes, like the one where she called me in 2003 and joked her cancer was back, then cackled loudly and said she was kidding. Ha. Ha.
During chemo, she chose not to wear a wig, and instead wore headwraps and proudly flew bald. She just didn’t seem to care. Her hair never really grew back. If you ask my aunt to take a picture with you today, she will refuse, claiming she hates pictures. The truth is cancer changes how you feel about your body. Her hair didn’t grow back to its former glory, but thankfully, neither did her cancer. She just hit her 21 year clear MRI on October 8, 2019.
2010: My Mother Roma
My mom’s cancer was hormone-based. She was told by a doctor that she would need a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. Our family friend Dr. Hingorani insisted she go to Dana Farber, a renowned cancer institute in Boston, for a second opinion. My mom balked at it, but my father and Hingorani insisted. It’s a good thing she listened. The doctors there confirmed chemotherapy wouldn’t be beneficial. At all. Had she gone through with it, she would have lost her hair and who knows what else…. for No. Benefit. At. All. With that being said, get second opinions. Get thirds. Make sure you have all the info you need.
By the way, after her lumpectomy and radiation, Mom was put on Arimidex, a drug specifically for post-menopausal women to reduce the risk of cancer coming back. She just hit 9 years clear and was told on October 9, 2019 that she no longer needs to take it.
2012: My Cousin Priya
My cousin was diagnosed in November 2012 in early November and went through at least 5 biopsies well into 2013. Because her cancer was especially aggressive, a combo of lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy was the only choice. At the time her children were 11, 9 and 7 years old, respectively.
At our Christmas dinner, a month before she began chemotherapy, I remember asking if I could get a picture of her, my aunt and the kids with my new camera. Priya responded, “Sure, since it’ll be the last time I have hair like this.” And she was right. Her hair has never returned to what it was that day.
She endured 8 rounds of chemo within 4 months and each infusion took 4 to 6 hours. We took turns accompanying her to Boston. Her husband, Douglas, did the first round. But when he tried to unplug the chemo machine to charge his Blackberry, let’s just say he wasn’t invited to return.