Colleen's Corner: Bravery
©2019, Colleen Irwin. All rights reserved.


Bravery is a noun that means courageous behavior or character. Thinking of myself as brave is hard to reconcile. Over the past few months, many have called me brave. It is odd because I feel anything but BRAVE! I feel like this is a logical, rational choice, knowing what I know. This is less about taking a leap of faith and just dealing with reality as it is.

I have joined a long list of women who have discovered that they are carrying the BRCA2 gene mutation that puts us at a much higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. BRCA2 also puts me at risk for melanoma and pancreatic cancer. Therefore, I have chosen to have a Preventative Hysterectomy and Double Mastectomy and reconstruction this year. I am blessed with an amazing husband and close friends that are incredibly supportive.

Where did bravery come into it? I must thank Angelina Jolie who made it a "brave" thing to take control of a potential health crisis. Meanwhile I feel like I waited too long to be tested and nothing is happening fast enough. Trust me, suddenly you are a pin cushion and going to multiple doctor appointments, facing several major surgeries. None of which is a walk in the park.

My mother died in 2018 after five different cancers over forty years, starting with Breast Cancer at age thirty and then again at age fifty. I have since found out that Ovarian cancer has stricken members of her extended family. On my father's side of the family there is breast cancer. Did you know that men get breast cancer too?

When I found out about what BRCA2 was, my emotions were all over the place. I felt backed into a corner with a ticking time bomb in my body that I needed to deal with. So, I am doing what I need to live a very long life with my husband and not have cancer. The hard part was having the genetic testing. What followed was an easy decision. I don't have cancer; I am being proactive. The opportunity to save my own life has presented itself; I would be foolish to not take it. It's was not an emotional decision; I would say what's statistically logical. I knew statistics in college would pay off one day...

I got my genetic results in February and honestly walking into that appointment I was calm. I knew what was right for me with these results. If I tested negative, I still would be doing this. Just with family history my risk is at about forty percent for breast cancer. With the BRCA2 gene mutation it went over eighty-five percent. My ovarian cancer risk is more than twenty percent and there is currently no way to detect it until it's too late.

The emotions surrounding this are tremendous and all valid! In many ways I am brave. I am doing what is needed so that I don't have to be a brave cancer fighter. I am brave because the decision to have a mastectomy isn't an easy one and the process isn't a walk in the park. Within the next year I would have three major surgeries. I had other ideas what this year would look like. One of my three words for 2019 was "Adventure." This is not what I meant!

It is bravery that I have. I have the courage to do something proactively. This is a major, life-changing event, no matter how old you are or when you find out. I am not alone, there are tons of people dealing with the same thing. Brave or not, it what I am doing. Even during it all, it can be scary.

In my spiritual practice I remind people that the need to feel the fear and push through it. That is what I am doing. There are times that people question why I am being so drastic. I feel guilty talking about it when I know there are people that have cancer, when I have the choice to do something about it. But, either way, it is still a major event whether it is a diagnosis or a gene diagnosis. There is an element of guilt that I am electing to take control. The struggle and pain during recovery is optional. But is it?

My attitude is let's get it done. I am dodging a bullet, getting it before it has the chance to get me. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be proactive rather than wait for the cancer to arrive.

I think I have finally understood the importance of facing fear and pushing forward. It is freeing and I am blessed.

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