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The BRCA Gene and Losing American Writer Elizabeth Wurtzel

Photo by Neville Elder

Elizabeth Wurtzel was a fearless writer, willing to share stark details of her own clinical depression, drug use, and sex life at an age when most of us are still crafting the narrative of who we are. Even her book titles – Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women – were forthright and unflinching. Perhaps this is why I am struggling with Wurtzel’s death at the age of 52, from a cause that she could have taken steps to prevent.

Wurtzel and I shared many characteristics: We were Jewish New Yorkers of similar age, both of us writers, and most importantly we each had inherited a genetic mutation called BRCA. According to the CDC, half of women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation will get breast cancer and a third will get ovarian cancer by the time they reach 70. Compare that to women without the mutation: seven out of 100 will get breast cancer and one out of 100 will get ovarian cancer.

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Preventing Cancer – What I Did to Stay Alive

I woke up this morning without breasts. Not a surprise. This is how it’s been since I underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy six years ago on August 7, 2012 – to prevent getting breast cancer. I still think, as I imagine Angelina Jolie believes of her life-affirming surgery, it’s the best decision I ever could have made.

For more than a decade, my gynecologist warned me I was high-risk for developing cancer. My mother had died of ovarian cancer and I tested positive for BRCA1, the genetic mutation that bumps lifetime risk of breast cancer from 12% (the general population) up to 85%. Couple all of this with the knowledge my grandmother died of breast cancer, and surgery actually felt like an opportunity, not a sentence. Doctors promised the 11.5-hour procedure (the plastic surgeon created breast “mounds” out of my own belly fat so I could avoid getting implants) would free me from many more years of medical surveillance – a battery of non-stop breast exams, mammograms, and MRIs. And it did. Even better, when the anesthesia wore off, the relentless fear of being diagnosed with breast cancer was gone. I was free. …Continue Reading