I asked my 9 year old daughter to write what she knew about her risk of cancer. “I know I am definitely at risk. I love my mom because she is brave and if anything ever happens I’ll still have her. Because we have breast cancer in my family, that puts me at higher risk but I will know how to handle it. I have my family to support me.”
I was 6 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. As the youngest of four, I was shielded. She didn’t appear sick and never discussed the word cancer with me. Years later my aunt, my mother’s only sibling, got breast cancer and died soon after. Watching my mother bury her sister was a moment that will be forever etched into my memory. When my mother got breast cancer a second time at 56 years old, her doctor suggested we participate in a Family Risk Assessment Program. That is how I discovered at 28 years old that I was BRCA1 positive along with every woman in my family.
At 29, surveillance seemed logical while my husband and I started our family. Surveillance was stressful and prompted more tests due to suspicious spots. My plan changed when my 33 year old sister called to tell me she had breast cancer. Within the same year my other sister, then 39, discovered she had breast cancer. I then promised my mother that I would begin researching preventative surgeries.
In 1999, I discovered FORCE where women from all over the country were sharing their surgical decisions, treatments, opinions and advice. I asked few questions and mostly observed the conversations from the safety of my home while nursing my new baby. I reached out when I was ready and was amazed at the kindness and empathy I received. A stranger spoke to me for hours from Idaho about her surgeries and even shared pictures. These supportive new friends gave me the courage to move forward with the preventative surgeries that I feel saved my life. In 2003, the year of my GAP Flap surgeries, I hardly had time to be afraid of my own situation since my sister had a recurrence of her breast cancer and I spent every free moment I could with her.
In 2004, my sister died at the age of 38 leaving behind a husband and three young sons. The hereditary cycle had repeated itself --- I lost my sister just as my mother had lost hers 18 years earlier. After many years of sadness, I needed to share my story. I wanted to be there for other women and I became an outreach coordinator for FORCE. “The Hope Chests: It’s What’s Inside” became a cathartic experiment. I spent my summer making plaster casts of the chests of BRCA positive women. Every model was proud to get topless and allow her story to be “exposed”. I learned that our stories shared so many similarities and there was an instant connection. Each Hope Chest is decorated by a different artist on the outside and tells a personal story inside. These sculptures are displayed in Phoenix, and continue to educate the public about the stories of FORCE.
I am a healthy 43 year old married art teacher, living in Scottsdale, Arizona with a son and daughter. This is what I wrote inside my Hope Chest: “I am lucky to have been given a crystal ball; that gift of knowing at an early age. I am no longer a time bomb waiting to go off... I will be around for my future and my family. My scars have faded but the pain of losing my sister does not. I know for sure that all of the discomfort I have experienced is a tiny price to pay to ensure that my future is healthy. My torso next to my daughter’s emphasizes her delicate youth and hopeful future. I looked at myself from the outside to notice the asymmetry of my reconstructed breasts. The mighty tree trunk is symbolic of my strength and stability as a protective mother. My long branches reach out and support my daughter’s small limbs. The sweet gum tree fruit falls from the branches and are reminiscent of those that littered my front yard in my east coast childhood. These spiky fruit are beautifully complex. They look prickly and foreboding but pass on important genetic material to grow a new life.”
We are all at different points in our journeys and these Hope Chests connect us. This genetic mutation connects us. All of these factors come together to create a powerful body of art that represents FORCE. I hope this artwork inspires others to be strong like FORCE inspired me.
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