What if you needed to cut off a piece of your body to save your life? Tough choice. What if you were a gorgeous movie star whose career hinged on your beauty—and the body part in question was your breasts? Tougher still. And yet, if you're as brave as Angelina Jolie, you do it.
The A-lister recently found out she has BRCA-1, a gene that gave her an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and also 50-50 odds of ovarian cancer. Experts say the odds vary from woman to woman with the gene. Tough as it may be, Angelina did the right thing. A double mastectomy is a damn tough operation, but you can get over it and feel like a woman again. I know, because, sadly, this surgery is about the only thing I have in common with Angie.
In 2009 a routine mammogram revealed cancer in my left breast. For safety's sake, I opted for a double mastectomy. Breast cancer unfortunately runs in my family—my mom is a survivor, and my younger sister, Emily, was at the time struggling with it too.
I remember, in the days leading up to my surgery, sitting beside healthy co-workers and silently praying to God to let us swap bodies. On the drive to the hospital, I fought a wild urge to leap out of the moving car and run away. If I'd known exactly what would be waiting at the hospital for me, I probably would have. Shortly before the operation, a technologist made me sign a form acknowledging I was about to become radioactive. Then he took a long needle and injected nuclear-tinged fluid into my nipples. My knees buckled from my fright and the sting. I should've stood my ground, because there was a lot more awfulness to come.
The weeks following the operation were a blur of fatigue and pain. I shuffled around my house in a bathrobe, nodding off as suddenly as a narcoleptic, peeing in my bed while unconscious from painkillers, unable to raise my throbbing arms more than a few inches. Plastic tubes had been tucked into slits in my armpits—bloody yellow fluid would collect in bulbs at the end; I'd drain the oozy muck daily with my husband's help.
Doesn't sound Angelina-like, does it? Yet she must have done this stuff too. I don't think you get off any easier for being famous.
Physical therapy visits entailed trying to lift single-pound weights; I was the editor-writer who suddenly couldn't grasp a pen or hold a book. I lost 15 pounds, and at least a pound of it was tears of discomfort and frustration.
Once my breasts were reconstructed (a whole separate uncomfortable surgery) I could no longer feel them—true still, 4 years later. I had re-learn my physical geography. For weeks I'd slam my new, numb chest against tables and into doors. I no longer knew where I started and ended.
Angelina has said she had her double mastectomy so her kids wouldn't lose their mother. That's another thing she and I have in common. Once, when my then-5-year-old daughter was in the bath, she asked me to toss her a cup she wanted to play with. I still hadn't fully learned how my new body worked, so I threw it too hard and hit her on the head. Angry and frustrated, I was the one who collapsed into to tears, but at least I was still there. I was still her mommy.
And then, in the midst of this, my younger sister, Emily, died. In late March of 2009, she went into convulsions from metastatic tumors that had ravaged her Phi-Beta-Kappa-award-winning brain. She was unconscious for 9 days, then passed at midnight in a hospital room, age 37. We'd all been around her bedside that afternoon, and she'd briefly opened her eyes as we'd said our daily goodbye. But no one was there when she drew that final tortured breath, a fact that haunts us still.
Yet somehow, in watching her pass away, I remembered to be so grateful for my own life again. Sure, I had scars, but my cancer had been caught early, before it spread. That summer, I felt I lived for us both. The flowers bloomed brighter; the sky was bluer; every bird seemed like it was singing just for me. My husband still loved me, my daughters were growing by the day. Everything seemed so much more vivid.
I still live like that - extra-appreciative for every day. Most days I don't even remember my double mastectomy unless someone asks. I never think about how I can't feel my chest.
I've figured out I didn't end. I figured out how to start again.