The Wild Girls of Genetic Counseling

Today I went to the Cancer Genetics Program at Fancy Hospital to start finding out if I have either of the BRCA gene mutations, more common among us Ashkenazim than the general population. The mutations increase a person's risk for both breast and ovarian cancer. If I have the mutation, I'll send my right ovary into storage. (The left has already gone to its final reward.) I was the only patient in the office, which just had three chairs in the waiting room. It was so odd and quiet compared to the vast waiting area of Chemolandia. A chirpy intern had interviewed me on the phone already to gather all the information about cancer in the family. (Yes, we have cancer, we have many kinds of cancer: colon, endometrial, breast, stomach, lung, skin, parotid gland. Not to mention leukemia and Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia.) The intern came out to get me and I joined her and the genetic counselor, who was tall and blond and said, Someone's been writing on your head. The intern explained everything to me via diagrams in a book. She did a good job. Based on my family history, I have an 18 percent chance of having a BRCA mutation. I decided I wanted the blood test for it, and I also agreed to participate in some research, so four tubes of my blood were collected.

The blonde measured my head to see if it was big. It's not. It's normal. I always thought it was big, but that's because of the bulkiness of my former hair. There's a rare syndrome, Cowden, which is caused by a genetic mutation and makes you more likely to develop breast, thyroid, uterine and maybe colon cancer. I may be tested for that mutation, too. Besides a big head, other symptoms of Cowden syndrome are awkward gait, skin tags and bumps, what sounded like "hammertoes" in your colon, and lipomas. I've had a couple of random bumps removed and also a lipoma (which grew back). A lipoma is a fatty (lipos=Greek for fat; think liposuction...and My Big Fat Greek Wedding) tumor under your skin. I have one on my upper arm that grew to replace the one that was cut out. At the time of the surgery, I asked the surgeon to show it to me, and he did. It was yellow like chicken fat. So now my homework is to get the pathology reports from the bump- and lipoma-ectomies and my colonoscopy. The Counseling gal said tongue and mouth bumps can be part of the syndrome, and she checked out a tongue bump I've had for about 15-20 years. She looked around my mouth and gums. I felt like we were checking for ticks. (My friend D asks: What's considered foreplay in the Ozarks? Checking for deer ticks.)

I have to fill out a form to help researchers looking at another mutation. The counselor said there is follow-up for that study every two years. So people will call you up and ask, Do you have breast cancer? I asked, picking up an invisible phone. I picked it up again, Do you have cancer? Do you have cancer? Are you dead?

It was that kind of atmosphere, where I felt I could do that. If those two are any indication, genetic counselors are a load of fun.

Today was the first time in five days that I was happy. I didn't feel like crying. I could laugh. It made me realize how miserable I'd been feeling.

I'll get the results in about four to five weeks. If I have BRCA1 or 2, then I'll have to think about getting my right breast removed, too. L and I have been saying that the mastectomy was nothing compared to the chemo, but still the mastectomy was something. And those fucking drains stuck inside my body! At least if I do have to get the second breast removed, I'll be grateful that I haven't had reconstruction yet. I could get both breasts filled up at the same time.

Years ago I was friends with a genetic counselor. We met when we were docents for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. When she gave tours of Glessner House, she'd say: See that cabinet over there? It's 100 years old...and it's never been opened. Her father gave Jewish tours in New York, and gave us a private one once of the Lower East Side. Our friend had breast cancer. And then she died.