Angelina's faulty BRCA1 gene also put her at a 50% risk of developing ovarian cancer. Today she has shared with the world, in her article Diary of a Surgery, that she has now had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in order to reduce (almost entirely eliminate) this cancer risk.
What Angelina has written in Diary of a Surgery has shaken me up.
I have a faulty PALB2 gene. In the same way that Angelina's faulty BRCA1 gene put her at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer, my faulty PALB2 gene puts me at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Of course, I've now had breast cancer, so that risk has already become a reality! My medical team are doing all they can to reduce the risk of that same cancer coming back - that's why I've had 6 cycles of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and (I'm about to start) 3 weeks of radiotherapy. As well as reducing the risk of the cancer I already had coming back, the mastectomy reduces the risk of a new cancer in that breast. I am having the other breast removed to further reduce my risk of a brand new breast cancer as soon as my body is healed from radiotherapy.
Having a double mastectomy was not a difficult decision for me to make. In all honesty, it's possibly the easiest and quickest decision I've ever made in my life.
Simple as that. I don't want to die, and my breasts were going to kill me. Good riddance. (Besides, reconstructive surgery means they are still kind of there - albeit minus a nipple and with a couple of scars.)
The ovaries on the other hand have been a very different matter, for two reasons; one is about health, and one is about children. Having your ovaries removed puts you instantly in the menopause - this means amongst other things that you can't have children, and that you are at an increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease.
I've done a lot of thinking about these three things and I've had a lot of arguments about these three things. These are my personal views:
Heart disease: I'm not too worried. While the family I had has been obliterated by breast and ovarian cancer, hearts have always been healthy. Big, strong, healthy hearts (it's all the love, man!) I don't smoke, I do exercise, I can look after my heart ok.
Osteoporosis: I am worried about this. There's less I can do to prevent it, and from what my doctors have told me, it's more of a risk. If I do live for a few more decades, I'll have to be really bloody careful not to trip over my own feet and continually walk in to things the way I do now (Twice in one day last week I walked in to a door - forehead and hip. Clumsy idiot!) The sooner I have my ovaries removed, the more the risk of osteoporosis later in life increases, so there's an argument here for holding on to them as long as possible.
Children: This is the trickiest one. Some of my medical team seem pretty obsessed with me keeping my ovaries so that I have the option to have children in a few years time. I disagree. I don't think I should have children. First of all, if I get pregnant and there are any of my original cancer cells left in my body, it will be asking for trouble in the same way that waving a blowtorch round in a petrol station is asking for trouble. Secondly, there would be a 50% chance of the child inheriting the faulty copy of the PALB2 gene and facing a high risk of cancer later in their life - particularly if I had a girl. If in a few years I am still alive and kicking, and I'm in a relationship, then I'd love to consider the possibility of adoption. But right now, I'm single and I'm still undergoing treatment for breast cancer and so I guess staying alive has been my immediate concern. But the combination of hassle from others about keeping my options open about having children, and my concern around risk of osteoporosis meant that when I was discussing my ovaries with my oncologist registrar a couple of weeks ago, I said I'd keep hold of them for now. Everyone tells me the chances are I won't get ovarian cancer in the next five years.
Then I read Angelina's Diary of a Surgery article today, and as I said, it's shaken me up.
"...two weeks ago I got a call from my doctor with blood-test results... “There are a number of inflammatory markers that are elevated, and taken together they could be a sign of early cancer.” I took a pause. “[the blood test] has a 50 to 75 percent chance of missing ovarian cancer at early stages,” he said. He wanted me to see the surgeon immediately to check my ovaries.
I went through what I imagine thousands of other women have felt. I told myself to stay calm, to be strong, and that I had no reason to think I wouldn’t live to see my children grow up and to meet my grandchildren.
I called my husband in France, who was on a plane within hours. The beautiful thing about such moments in life is that there is so much clarity. You know what you live for and what matters. It is polarizing, and it is peaceful.
That same day I went to see the surgeon, who had treated my mother. I last saw her the day my mother passed away, and she teared up when she saw me: “You look just like her.” I broke down. But we smiled at each other and agreed we were there to deal with any problem, so “let’s get on with it.”
Nothing in the examination or ultrasound was concerning. I was relieved that if it was cancer, it was most likely in the early stages. If it was somewhere else in my body, I would know in five days. I passed those five days in a haze..."
Angelina goes on to describe how the PET scan was clear meaning that while early stage cancer was still possible, at least it wasn't a full-blown tumour. She then had surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. During surgery a benign tumour was found, and luckily that was all.
Reading all this took me back to my own diagnosis, and to the emotions you get when you are waiting for test and scan results. When I say emotions... I mean fear. You know that you are high risk, and those test and scan results are going to mean the difference between living and dying.
I tell people all the time to listen to their gut feeling when it comes to their own bodies. I've been right about mine enough times. And Angelina's article today has prompted me to pull my head out of the sand I buried it in in order to get some peace from everything "cancer" and the opinions of everyone else about whether or not I should have my own children, and go back to the oncologist and demand my ovaries be chopped out as soon as possible. The left one in particular, I don't trust it. It's been a troublemaker in the past.
I don't want osteoporosis, but more than that I don't want to die from ovarian cancer.
I do want children, but I don't want to get pregnant and risk my life.
Like Angelina, I want my ovaries out.