Remembering Mom as I get genetic test results back

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

The results for the genetic testing I underwent last month came back, and they’re negative.

I was relieved when I found out that I don’t carry the BRCA gene mutation. If I had the mutation, I would have had up to an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime, and would have been at risk of getting ovarian cancer. Because I don’t have it, my chances of getting breast cancer are now just 21 percent. (The average woman has a 10 percent chance of getting it.)

I’m still considered “high risk,” so my doctor suggested that I get clinical breast exams every six months. Once I turn 30, he said, I should start getting a mammogram every six months and an MRI every six months. Until then, I should alternate between a mammogram and an MRI every year so that I don’t expose myself to so much radiation at a young age.

I’m torn about whether I should get screened so often. If my insurance company will pay for the bulk of the screenings, then I’ll be more likely to get them. I know how important they are, and I now realize that I have to start doing self-breast exams so I can detect any lumps or changes that may be cause for concern. I often avoid doing breast self exams for fear of what I’ll find, and I had been putting off genetic testing for years. I decided to get tested, though, after my boyfriend and my best friend both convinced me to do it. I’m glad I did. Now I don’t have to worry about the unknown and I can instead be proactive about what I can control — my ability to get screenings.

I’m trying not to worry about what could happen in the future. Yes, I am at an increased risk of getting breast cancer, but there’s a 79 percent chance I won’t get it. There’s good reason to have hope, and I know my mom would want me to.

Fifteen years ago today, Mom passed away from breast cancer, which had spread to her bone marrow, her liver and her brain. She was only 40. It’s hard to imagine that it’s already been 15 years. Some days it feels as though she was just here. Other days, it feels like an eternity. I know she’s always with me, though, and I’m reminded of her every day. Of all the lessons Mom taught me, perhaps the most important one was to not let fear stifle you.

My mom found a lump in her breast but waited months before seeing a doctor because she was scared. I don’t want to ever do that. I want to live the life my mom didn’t get to live, and I’m trying to take the right steps to increase the likelihood that I’ll live a healthy, long life. (It’s tough at times, though.)

Fear can make you not want to go to the doctor, or it can make you feel as though you’re a coward who needs to struggle alone. Mom ultimately turned her fear into courage, though — the courage to finally confront her disease and fight it out until the end. She passed this courage on to me, and it’s one of the greatest gifts she could have given me. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.