It seems like today we hear of more and more women going through pre-emptive surgery for breast cancer. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Rita Wilson have both undergone bilateral mastectomies and reconstruction after discovering markers for cancer within their cells. Since then, there has been a spike in tests for genetic predispositions for cancers and subsequent “preventive” surgeries by women all over the world.
Angela Schmidt Fishbaugh went through a journey similar to Angelina Jolie’s. Her book, Angela’s Decision: Outsmarting My Cancer Genes and Determining My Fate is a touching memoir that chronicles her decision to undergo preventative surgeries after discovering she carried the BRCA1 cancer gene. This excerpt particularly stood out to me:
The next day my “What if” thoughts kick into high gear. Although I perform every relaxation technique there is—warm baths, meditation, apply lavender lotion, yoga with nature sounds, yoga in silence, yoga with a water fountain—my “What if’s” are flowing into my mind every few moments. The one good thing about being in the “What if” zone is that I am also continually asking myself, “Well, what if I do have cancer? Then how do I want to live?” I always answer myself with the same response: “Live with compassion.”
I’ve noticed that when I live with compassion towards all people and things, I feel very awake to life. When I am awake to life, I’m more in the moment. When I’m more in the moment, I feel more joy in my heart.
My smile stays with me, and I appreciate everything around me more than ever. I love my children, my job, my husband, my life. I love life! I love life and want my life more than ever. So when Leigh calls me at work and asks to be connected to my room, I hold my breath as she shares the results: “Your CA125 [(Cancer Antigen 125)] blood test came back normal. This is good news.”
I breathe and cry. “Oh my God, thank God. I was preparing myself to have this emergency hysterectomy tomorrow.”
“Now, we need to make sure you don’t have cancer anywhere else,” says Leigh. “So we are going to keep all the upcoming tests. I’ve scheduled them for November 10, beginning at one-thirty in the afternoon.”
I take out the little diary that I’ve begun to carry with me in my pocket and write down everything Leigh tells me. Leigh is like a beautiful hummingbird and flutters it all out in one breath.
“We’re sending you to Arnot Hospital where you can have everything done at one place. Now, at 1:30 you’re going to have a transvaginal ultrasound. Then you’ll go directly to radiology where you will drink half a smoothie at 2:15. Drink the other half at 3:15. The smoothie is no big deal; it’s so they can see what is going on inside you. You’ll then have your upper MRI at 3:30 followed by an abdominal-pelvic CAT scan at four.”
“I can do this all in one day?”
She tries to reassure me. “Angela, this is the best thing. Yes! But I couldn’t get you in for a colonoscopy until November 25.”
I take a deep breath and then say, “Not to take away from Dr. Dayes’s professional opinion, but I would like to have a few other opinions on what Dr. Dayes is recommending me to do. I mean, asking me to have a total hysterectomy and a total mastectomy when I’m only forty-one years old is a lot. Don’t you agree?”
Leigh continues with her reassurances. “Dr. Dayes wouldn’t take that personally. Don’t worry! I’d do the same thing if I were in your shoes. I’m going to get some numbers for you to get two or three opinions. This is the first time we have had a positive BRCA1 patient,” she adds eagerly. “So this is all new to us as well. I’ll call you tomorrow with those names.”
I’m excited that my CA125 came back normal, less than 6.1 according to Leigh. The CA125 is a protein that is produced in cancer cells. The normal range of CA125 in blood serum levels are 0–35. Dr. Dayes wants my CA125 blood test to be less than 20, so my number falls well within the “okay” range.
Leigh tells me that if it had been elevated above 21, Dr. Dayes would have wanted to operate right away. This is because I would have had two strikes against me in regards to ovarian cancer. We know that I’ve already tested positive for the hereditary breast and ovarian cancer gene (HBOC). Since my CA125 level is within normal limits—and therefore I only have one strike—I am free from emergency surgeries at this time. I finish writing down the information she gives me and then put my pocket diary away.
Although I don’t know everything about all these cancer tests, my friend Bill, who died of cancer a few years back, always told me that cancer is “all about the numbers.” He told me this when I gave him a hug one day and told him he looked fabulous. He then reluctantly shared that his blood test numbers didn’t lie and that his cancer was progressing. I sadly asked him how this could be when he looked so great. He shrugged, shook his head, and looked down. “Cancer is all about the numbers.”
My hand is still on the phone receiver, and I am immediately frozen in gratitude for Leigh’s news. I take a deep breath and can feel Bill’s feisty voice in my heart: “Angela, your numbers are frickin’ good.”
I head back to my students who are with my assistant and are now playing in their learning centers, and I murmur to myself, “My numbers are good!”
Excerpted with permission from Angela’s Decision: Outsmarting My Cancer Genes and Determining My Fate by Angela Schmidt Fishbaugh. Copyright 2015, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.