“Pretty is What Changes” from The Book

Jessica Queller is a television writer and the author of Pretty Is What Changes, a memoir about the genetics of breast cancer

permission granted August 19, 2008, all rights reserved © by Jessica Queller

If someone had told me at 30 that in the next five years, I would have my breasts removed in a preemptive strike against cancer, I’d have called her crazy. What a difference five years make.

Eleven months after my mother died, I tested positive for the same genetic mutation that had caused her early breast cancer and ovarian cancer that finally killed her.  Although I was 35 and single, the idea of undergoing a double mastectomy to protect myself from cancer no longer seemed insane.  In fact, after watching my young, vibrant mother die a horrific death, it seemed the logical choice.  Some members of my family worried about me.  They believed I was wildly underestimating how traumatized I’d be when I woke up without my breasts.  I decided to have the operations because for me reconstructed breasts were preferable to cancer.  And yet I expected this would be a deeply mournful period of my life. 

 It turned out to be one of the most joyous. In those final days before the surgery, I was in a feverish, almost elated state. I’d always envisioned my friends gathering to spoil me before my wedding. Instead, I had a farewell breasts night out with eight of my closest girlfriends. In lipstick and heels, we met at a chic bistro in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, drank cosmopolitans, and laughed with abandon. Each friend gave a long, emotional toast in my honor. To all appearances, we were at a bachelorette party and I was the bride.

The week before my mastectomy, my father and sister went to a nursery and bought seven large trees for me as a gift three for inside my apartment, and four to put outside on the small terrace.  I blinked in amazement as the deliverymen carried in a tree after beautiful tree, breathing new life into my home.  The loved ones in my life surrounded and buoyed me they made me feel special and courageous. 

The first week home post-surgery, I was high on Vicodin and had drainage tubes pinned to my cotton nightie, yet I was hostess to an endless stream of visitors in what felt like an around-the-clock party.  I overdid it, of course, and my doctor soon shut down the festivities.

Two weeks after surgery, I went in to see Dr. Roses for an exam.  He held the pathology report in his hand. You had precancerous changes in your right breast tissue, Jessica.  Atypical ductal hyperplasia.

I’d felt certain my breasts needed to be sacrificed for my health, but I hadn’t been expecting this.  The doctor registered the shock and disbelief on my face. If you had any doubt about the course of action you chose, this should dispel it.  You did the right thing.

Two years post-surgery, though, my strongest memory is of being showered with love from the extraordinary people in my life.  I’ve learned that the most devastating experience even losing a mother to a terrible disease can glimmer with surprising rays of hope.

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