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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

Alan Rickman, David Bowie, and a National Call to Cure Cancer

This morning, my Facebook page filled with news that Alan Rickman, or as many of us will always remember him, Professor Snape, had passed away from cancer.

Of course, this is not the only beloved artist to die of cancer this week. Just a few days ago the world learned David Bowie succumbed to cancer as well.

These are the kind of stories that reverberate throughout social media. But they are also, sadly, nothing new. And surely these celebrity cancer deaths won’t be the last. Bowie and Rickman are just the latest casualties of cancer, one of the great enemies of humanity.

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CNN.com OPINION: What I share with Angelina Jolie

In 2007 I had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to prevent my getting ovarian cancer.

It was a surgery of the kind that Angelina Jolie recently underwent, as she revealed Tuesday in a New York Times op-ed. Two years ago, Jolie divulged that she’d had a prophylactic double mastectomy — I had done this as well, in 2012.

Along with the effects of the surgeries themselves, we now also share a related fallout: surgical menopause. Continue Reading

New York Times: Can the Human Blueprint Have Owners? BRCA Test, Vital for Me, Shouldn’t Be Limited

Myriad began offering BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing in 1996, the same year my mother died of ovarian cancer. Since then, Myriad reports to have screened more than one million patients. That includes Angelina Jolie, and me.

Jolie and I have a lot in common: Her mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 56; my mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 57. Angelina tested positive for BRCA1; so did I….Continue Reading

CNN.com Health: Why More Women are Choosing Double Mastectomies

Ten months ago, Vanessa Thiemann lay in bed unable to sleep.

The 42-year-old single mother of two had a sinus infection, and the pain was making her restless. She tried getting comfortable on her left side, then her right, but she ended up staring at the ceiling in complete darkness, her left hand coming to rest on her chest….Continue Reading

CNN.com Health: My Preventive Mastectomy – Staying Alive For My Kids

I’m not a helicopter parent and my children would tell you I don’t bake cupcakes for their birthday parties. But I’d readily cut off my breasts for them — and recently, I did.

Removing breast tissue uncompromised by cancer is relatively easy. It took the breast surgeon about two hours to slice through my chest and complete the double mastectomy seven weeks ago…Continue Reading

HuffPost: The Dangers of Having a Baby After 35 – What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You

If you are over 35, you’re probably aware of the increased risks of having a baby. Older women are more likely to have miscarriages, c-sections, suffer high blood pressure, and develop gestational diabetes. Your child is more likely to be born too early, not weigh enough, have chromosomal birth defects (most commonly Down syndrome), and other serious, potentially life-threatening conditions. Women are familiar with these hazards because their doctors talk about them routinely….Continue Reading

HuffPost: Being a Parentless Parent -The Effect on You, Your Children and Your Marriage

Both of my parents have passed away, and little has shaped the way I raise my children or affected the relationship I have with my husband and in-laws more than the fact that my mom and dad aren’t here to be grandparents to my children. I am a parentless parent.

Because women are having babies later and later, the number of parentless parents in America is skyrocketing….Continue Reading