Recently the topics of BRCA and bravery have been in the news. Previvor Angelina Jolie made headlines when she announced that she carries a BRCA1 mutation and underwent prophylactic bilateral mastectomies. Singer Melissa Etheridge, a BRCA2 mutation carrier and a breast cancer survivor, labeled Jolie’s choice of BPM as “fearful” rather than “brave.” Personally, I don’t think that bravery and fear are mutually exclusive.
Fear is a powerful motivator. It is an adaptive and natural reaction to threats to our lives and well-being that can lead us to make choices that improve our survival or quality-of-life. Fear of cancer may not be the only fear on which we base decisions. Fear comes in many varieties: fear of chemotherapy or radiation, fear of life-altering or image-altering surgeries, fear of leaving our children parentless, fear of passing on a mutation, fear of medical debt, fear of a recurrence, etc. Each of these fears are valid and may impact our personal health care decisions. Fear does not make our actions any less brave and it doesn’t mean these decisions are rash or uninformed. Fear can be balanced with information, empowerment, action, and even competing fears.
Bravery evokes images of heroic people sacrificing their lives for others, but there are other examples of bravery. Like so many women in our community, Angelina Jolie cites concern for her children as a reason for being proactive with her medical care. Putting the needs of others above our own requires courage. Several members have expressed that they didn’t feel particularly brave in facing their cancer risk. Although I can relate to their feelings, I would argue that the HBOC community includes some of the bravest role models I have ever met.
Most of my life I have never felt that brave, and bravery was never a description that I ever used to define myself. I was bullied in school, and I didn’t stand up for myself. Instead I shrank from confrontation.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and later when it recurred at age 34, I was terrified. I thought the rest of my life would be short, and given my prognosis I was afraid my 2-year-old son would grow up without a mom, like I did. So I did what I felt was necessary to improve my chances of survival: I left my busy veterinary practice to move to Houston for treatment at MD Anderson, one of the top cancer centers. My husband called me brave as he dropped me off for my appointment for a second opinion. I may have appeared resolute, but inside I was trembling. He confessed later when he picked me up that he would have fainted from terror walking through the imposing doors of the cancer center.
While on sabbatical for treatment, many of my clients called or wrote to wish me well. They sent their prayers and good wishes, and many told me they thought I was brave. I didn’t feel I had earned any badges for valor. I was simply doing what my doctors recommended. From the time of my recurrence until I finished treatment, on any given day it was a struggle between getting up and facing the day or hiding under the covers paralyzed with fear. I didn’t feel brave, but hearing the word from others was like a shot of courage, a mantra that sustained me.
As members of the HBOC community, we face many difficult challenges and decisions. Courage comes in many forms. Whether it’s proceeding with genetic counseling and testing, telling relatives about the mutation in the family, going to a high-risk clinic for an MRI, facing cancer treatment, entering a clinical trial for an investigational drug, waiting for test results, receiving that first chemotherapy, undergoing the last fill, or sharing with the world in a very public manner about personal medical choices in order to raise awareness; every circumstance we face requires grit and determination. Even the recommendations for which we feel we have no reasonable alternative still require us to move forward, schedule the appointment, and show up. Why shouldn’t we accept the positive labels? We might not feel we have earned them, but maybe we can gain strength from them.
Life is hard enough. And for people with inherited cancer risk, it is even more so. It is already difficult to face the criticism and lack of understanding from uninformed people. It is even harder when criticism comes from public figures and receives wide media attention. Uniting our community through FORCE demonstrates how much lighter our burden can be when we share and support one another.
We shouldn’t be ashamed of our feelings. Bravery is not the absence of fear. Acknowledging our fears and adding them into the medical equation is a reasonable approach to decision making. You don’t have to feel brave to be brave. Sometimes courage means just putting one foot in front of the other to meet your destiny. Your example of fortitude may be the inspiration others need to continue their own journey in a positive direction.Tags: brca, BRCA 1, brca research, brca testing, BRCA1, BRCA2, breast cancer, breast cancer early detection, breast cancer prevention, facingourrisk, gene testing, Genetic counseling, HBOC, hereditary cancer, previvor;pre-vivor;high-risk;breast cancer risk;ovarian, prophylactic surgery, survivor, young survivor