Call it premature, or irrational, or morbid, but I’m convinced that I’m destined to get breast cancer. I’ve accepted it, figuring it’s better to prepare myself mentally—and take precautions like self-exams—than be caught off-guard like my great-aunt Barbara was, when she was diagnosed at the age of 39. That was back in the ’60s, and even though it was only a small lump, they lopped off her whole breast, so primitive were the treatment options at that point.
After reading the Indy-centric medical-innovation stories that accompany our annual list of Top Docs—like Community Health’s super-targeted, 30-minute radiation device—it’s clear how far breast cancer techniques have come. But as medicine improved, the family history on my dad’s side just became worse. In 1997, my grandmother, Barbara’s sister, was diagnosed with it, too, and it spread to her lymph nodes. She went through a mastectomy and chemotherapy, my grandfather spending every night by her side in the hospital.
A few years later, another of her sisters, Rachel, contracted the cancer. It metastasized, spreading slowly from her bust to her brain, devastating her body and her family. So when a 2011 mammogram caught a tumor in Grandma’s remaining breast, she didn’t hesitate. Off it came, the surgery officially flattening her chest. All right, I sighed, looking down at my own C-cups. Let’s just enjoy them while they last.
After Grandma’s second bout, I even considered genetic testing to see if I had the breast cancer gene. But it was costly, and I wondered how the results would affect my psyche. Now I have a much better idea: donate my (hope-upon-hope) healthy breast tissue to IU Simon Cancer Center’s Komen Tissue Bank (see "Banking on It," p. 60 in the November issue), believed to be the first of its kind. The procedure is quick; just a small incision, and off the sample goes to researchers looking into what normal cells can teach us about diseased ones. There may be some bruising and a tiny scar, but it’s worth it.
Donating is the least I can do to honor the women in my family who came, and suffered, before me—and the ones who might one day follow. Instead of just fretting about breast cancer, I can be useful. The last donation session this year is on November 3, and you can sign up at komentissuebank.iu.edu. I could use some company.
Amanda Heckert is the editor of Indianapolis Monthly. See her bio here.
This column appeared in the November 2012 issue.