As the title suggests, I have plans to be slightly philosophical again today. The reason for that is that this past Monday, I received the results of what’s probably the most important blood test I’ve taken to date: a gene test.
My maternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and passed away at age fifty, just weeks before I was born. Then six years ago, almost to the date, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and while I was fortunate enough to keep her, her illness alerted the doctors to a possible gene mutation in our family. More specifically, a mutation in the BRCA gene.
If you have a normal, non-mutated version of this gene, your body will produce a protein that protects you from various forms of cancer, especially breast and ovarian cancer, but also from a number of other types.
If, however, you have a mutated version, something goes awry in the process of making this protein. As far as I understand, your body still produces the protein, but a far less effective version, leaving you less protected. With a mutated BRCA gene, a woman has a 60-80% chance of getting either breast or ovarian cancer during her lifetime. Those aren’t nice numbers.
As it turns out, my mother is a carrier of a mutated BRCA gene, giving me and my siblings a 50/50 chance of being carriers as well. Being a self proclaimed worry wart and hypochondriac, I was completely convinced that I had inherited the gene, but I was rather calm about it. In fact, the doctors whom I had my mandatory consultation with, seemed to think I had more feelings around the possibility of having this mutation than I actually do.
The way I saw it, I either had the gene or I didn’t. If I didn’t, great. If I did, I would rather know about it and take the necessary precautions. I’m happy to say that I do not have the mutated gene, but like I said, I went in to get the results utterly prepared to be told something different.
This means, of course, that I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about what it would be like to live with the knowledge that I had a significantly increased risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer. The recommended course of action is to get yearly scans, and, after producing the desired amount of offspring, having a hysterectomy, and possibly a mastectomy.
Many women feel that these procedures rob them of their womanhood; I balk at the idea of taking out my ovaries and cutting off my breasts, but for entirely different reasons. I would probably have elected to have both the hysterectomy and the mastectomy in the end, because I think I will always choose life over anything else, but I’m glad it’s a choice I don’t have to make.
However, I can’t imagine feeling less of a woman if I were to get rid of my breasts and ovaries. I’m utterly secure in my womanhood and in my sexuality, and I’ve never found cause to question either. I’m not the stereotype of a woman, and I’m glad for that, because stereotypes are so impossibly limiting. No living, breathing person is a stereotype. We’re all more than the flesh we walk around in, though the world around us always tries to push us into its neat little boxes. Women are like this, men are like that. But we’re not.
Of all the traits I have, you can’t point to anything and say “this is what makes you a woman”, be it physical or psychological. We are not our sex, but living beings responding to the world around us. But everyone’s just guessing; no one really knows what it means to be a woman, or a man for that matter. We just make it up as we go along, whether we apply our theories to ourselves, or to the people we meet. Being a woman, being a man, being human… It’s all just improvisation.