Me (and Angelina Jolie) – The Double Mastectomy Decision

Every time I tell the story, I start at the same place. Outside of Fort Lewis as a young military spouse standing in the corner of my living room talking about breast cancer with two other military spouses. We were three women whose mothers had breast cancer at a young age. We had heard about some test you could take to find out if you carried a mutation that could cause breast cancer in families. Two of us would later learn that we carried the gene. One of us would get breast cancer.

Obviously, the news that Angelina Jolie has the same deleterious gene mutation as me and had a double mastectomy, also like me, has been on my mind. I’ve been frustrated by the commentary about the decision that Angelina made. It’s much like commenting on the life of a military spouse without being one. Who knows what decisions you would make if you walked in that person’s shoes! So, as I read a male pediatrician’s respond to Angelina’s decision to get a double mastectomy because she carried the BRCA1 gene, I could only shake my head.

He never got a call on a Sunday afternoon from a doctor with the news: the rules as you know them have changed. Breast cancer doesn’t just “run in your family.” It is implanted in your family. I carried the same gene as my mother (read: breast cancer at 40, 50, ovarian at 60), my aunt (read: died from breast cancer at 40), and my great-grandmother (read: died from breast cancer before 40).

I remember watching my three young kids eating lunch at the table as I crumpled down in the corner of our kitchen. I don’t remember breathing. I wanted to see them grow up. Just like Angelina.

I’ve written about having the gene, about what I decided, about how I felt after having a double mastectomy and reconstruction. I’m a writer! I write when something happens in my life. And Jolie, well, she’s someone who shares her story as an actress so it was only natural for her to reach out through The New York Times to tell her story in an Op-Ed that was published on Tuesday.

So she has inspired me to continue this conversation within our military spouse community. Throughout the years since I learned about my gene other military spouses have talked to me about getting tested and their family history of breast cancer. I often offer my own story.

One that involves picking when I would have surgery rather than waiting for a diagnosis to arrive on my doorstep; probably when we were in the middle of a move and a deployment and far from family. A story that had me standing in the middle of the post-playground with my 11 month old when Tricare called to tell me they weren’t going to be able to pay for my implants. I’m guessing the representative didn’t find the humor in me suggesting they could use Kleenex to fill me back up because two days certainly was not enough notice for me to be able to figure $4000 into the equation.

I can laugh now at some of the bumps in the road. But I know that there may be military spouses out there who are in the thick of it. Wondering what options they have and not knowing where to turn. Like Angelina, I want you to know you are not alone. Military life is complicated. Having this gene mutation is complicated. But what is not complicated is asking for help; seeking out those of us who have gone through it. And knowing all of your options.

I am thankful that Angelina decided to share her story. I hope sharing my story will let other military spouses know there are others who have gone through this process. To get you started in learning more about hereditary breast cancer, I encourage you to visit www.facingourrisk.org. And I hope that more of us will share our stories so we can learn from each other and can make more informed choices.

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