Sitting in the surgeon’s office, my husband, John, and I anxiously waited to hear what the doctor’s plan of action would be. Having recently received a breast cancer diagnosis I was swimming in overwhelm and fear. This appointment with the surgeon would hopefully stem that tide a bit.
After examining me and explaining the route he was going to take to defeat this cancer—lumpectomy and radiation followed by five years of hormone-suppressing medicine—he asked if I had any questions.
Here was my opportunity to address the question that was at the forefront of my mind.
“I have a daughter.”
He drew in a sharp breath and thought for over a full minute before deciding how to respond. “Well, let’s back up. You are borderline, because of your age, for being high-risk.”
He stopped for a second and continued. “Let’s get you tested for the breast cancer gene before we go ahead with the surgery. If you test positive for that you’ll most likely need a bi-lateral mastectomy and this will affect not only your daughter, but your sister as well.”
Stunned, I choked back tears as he told us someone from his office would make the appointment for me and we’d hear something soon. Then he left the room.
I held myself together until we reached the parking lot. Not being able to hold it in one more moment, I exploded with tears. John tried his best to comfort me, but I know his fears were peaked as well. “I don’t want anyone to know about this until we know for sure,” I almost begged John. He understood and immediately agreed.
I didn’t want to go straight home from the appointment so John suggested we stop by his office. I tentatively agreed, knowing our daughter, Elise, might be there and I’d have to face her. Unfortunately, I was right. I put my acting hat on and pulled myself together, numbly smiling and talking about the events of her day.
A few minutes later as I stood in the parking lot, one of my best friends, Frieda, saw me and pulled in, not even bothering to move her car out of the entrance. She jumped out of her still running vehicle and asked how my appointment went. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to talk to someone else until I was spilling out all of the details. She cried with me and gave me understanding hugs, shielded from Elise’s view by her big SUV. That gave me enough strength to make it through dinner with our daughter.
Later that evening, I decided I needed to share the news with my parents. After all, this affected all of their girls. While we drove the few blocks to Mom and Dad’s house, I mustered the strength to tell them the news.
Mom was surprised when she opened the door and saw John and me standing there. It wasn’t common for us to just drop by on a weeknight. She invited us into the den, where Daddy was already sitting. We made awkward small talk for a few minutes. Expectantly, Mom asked how my appointment had gone. The prospect of passing on this disease to my daughter and younger sister weighed heavily on me as I explained that they could be susceptible to this same cancer. All of the details came tumbling out as I choked back tears. “Oh Mama, I’m so sorry! This is all my fault!”
My mother surprised me by scooping me up in her arms, hugging me tightly. “It’s not your fault, Carol. It’s not anybody’s fault. Stop blaming yourself.”
Relief flooded my body as she spoke those words. Being the oldest child I’d always felt the weight of responsibility more than my siblings. Now my mom was telling me it was okay. This was a burden I didn’t have to carry.
It took another three weeks before I was given the results of my genetic testing. The woman who’d performed the family tree part of the test called me with the news. “Mrs. Roper. The results show you have none of the genetic markers that would put you at a higher risk for breast cancer.”
She must have thought I was crazy when I burst into tears. I apologized for not being able to contain myself and thanked her for the good news. That boulder of fear slid off of me and was replaced with a feeling of lightness I hadn’t had since learning about my diagnosis. Finally, I was able to share good news with my family, including my daughter, who never knew the fervent prayers I’d whispered for her and my little sister until it was over.