I am supposed to be writing this blog post on a technology related subject. But in the spirit of candor, I am drawing a complete blank. It would probably be more appropriate for me to write on this subject in a few weeks, after Apple’s annual WWDC conference.
So I am going to call an audible, and write on a completely unrelated subject, but one which has really grabbed my attention these past few days on a number of different levels: Angelina Jolie’s recent revelation that she had a proactive double mastectomy. If you happen to live under a rock and aren’t familiar with this news, you can read her New York Times editorial here.
The reason I’ve been so taken with this announcement is because it hits very, very close to home; my Wife recently had the exact same operation in pretty much the same timeline as Ms. Jolie.
Jolie tested positive for the BRCA1 gene whereas my Wife tested positive for BRCA2. Her decision to do a mastectomy was proactive and based on genetic testing and the fact that her mother died of cancer at a relatively young age. My Wife’s circumstances were slightly different; in late November of 2012 we discovered that she presented a very early stage cancer variant known as DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ).
Under ordinary circumstances, DCIS would be treated through a relatively minor surgical procedure and then, possibly, radiation treatment. Because my mother-in-law also had DCIS, our astute physician suggested genetic testing. In an ironic turn of events, we soon discovered it wasn’t my mother-in-law who was the carrier, but rather my father-in-law. Men who carry BRCA2 are at an increased risk for prostate cancer.
My wife also had her ovaries removed, to reduce her dramatically increased odds of ovarian cancer. Based on the wording of Jolie’s editorial, it would appear that she hasn’t yet done this part of the surgery, but I suspect she will over the course of the ensuing months/years.
But I digress.
One thing that I think Ms. Jolie underplayed in her editorial, was the severity of the surgery. I can’t lie; it wasn’t easy. I’m lucky that I have one very tough Wife – maybe the toughest person I’ve ever known – but even she was rocked by the ensuing surgeries, which included reconstruction. It hasn’t been easy on me, our in-laws or my kids, but like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, together we got through it.
And we never, for one second doubted our decision. Once my Wife received confirmation of her BRCA2 gene, her odds of getting a recurrence of breast cancer rose to upwards of 70 percent and ovarian to about 50%. You don’t need me to tell you that those odds are pretty poor. In light of that, I find it astonishing that some people are criticizing Jolie for making this very personal decision. I have to think that the naysayers simply do not fully understand the facts. If they did, they’d understand that it’s actually a pretty cut and dried decision.
So why am I going “public” (though I have shared bits and pieces with my West Coast staff) with all of this? I figure that if Angelina Jolie could go public and in the process help save lives, maybe I could do a small part too.
One of the key lessons in all of this, in my opinion, is that genetic testing saves lives. It arguably saved my Wife’s. This is one of the very rare instances where the dreaded “you have cancer” message set off a wave of events that over the long run – and in some very twisted, almost illogical manner – may very well have been the best news she’s ever heard.
So my message to you all: if you have a history of breast cancer in your family, most especially a history that runs generations deep, please consider giving strong consideration to genetic testing (and even if you don’t have a history, women should not forget to do regular mammography). Like us, you might discover that in a worst case scenario there is definitely a short term pain (in every respect of the word) that is mitigated by a long term gain.