When a negative is a great, big positive

Sorry to keep those of you who have been tuned in to my saga waiting, but thankfully, the news is good: my tests for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation – which indicates a greatly increased risk for breast cancer – were negative.

Not that you’d get that this was good news from the tenor of my appointment. I was led back to an exam room at U-M’s Cancer Center pretty immediately, and as I nervously pulled my scarf and coat off, the counselor said, “Well, I have what I think is good news for you.”

Instantly, I felt the cautious beginnings of relief, thinking, “There’s no way you could make this statement if the results were positive.” But then, I remembered articles I’d read about genetic testing in the past, wherein, in one case, a woman’s results were inconclusive, revealing a mutation that doctors couldn’t identify or define. But before I could think this through – this wouldn’t really be described as “good news,” would it? – the counselor told me that my results were negative, and that my BRCA1 and BRCA1 chromosomes were fine and functioning normally.

HOORAY!!!  Um … right?  Like, time to break out the really good wine, yes?

Not based on the downbeat, muted atmosphere of the appointment. Everything was couched in, “This is good news, but we’ll still want to watch you carefully, make sure you have a doctor giving you a breast exam every six months, etc., etc.” Right. Got it. That was pretty much the plan anyway. But hey – I was just thinking. Could I celebrate and mentally kick up my heels for, like, thirty seconds?

Not really. I sat stoically in my chair, nodding to all the instructions I was getting, asking questions as though the news I’d just received was, “I know you wanted cinnamon fluoride, but we’re out of that. You’ll have to choose another flavor.” Why wasn’t I being allowed to be happy about this?

My guess is that it’s because they don’t want people to leave the clinic believing that because the results were negative, they’re immune to cancer. In fact, while it’s possible that my mother just didn’t pass the gene on to me, she also could have had a combination of genes that contributed to her disease, or just gotten the disease by chance. They can’t know, but the counselor did urge me to ask my sisters and my mother’s sister if they would consider being tested, so that they could have more information to work with. (I’m skeptical anyone else will pursue this, but you never know.)

Of course, if everyone’s test turned out negative – which you’d think is a good thing, right? – then they wouldn’t be any closer to finding an answer about what caused my mother’s cancer. They recommend having others related to us do the test so that if something does turn up, they can point to that as a likely cause instead of being so completely in the dark.

In any case, after the counselor left me, asking me to wait in the exam room to talk with “the doctor,” I found myself absorbing the news for several minutes before realizing I should make better use of the time. I called Joe first, then my father, then my poor friend Sophie, who was out in the waiting room, expecting the worst as my time in the exam room stretched to an hour.

Now there’s a 21st century moment: Ring, ring – hi, I know I’m only a couple hundred feet away from you, but I thought I’d call to tell you I’m fine.

Eventually, though, the doctor finally arrived, urging me to give Lily organic milk (the age of breast development in girls has dropped from twelve to six, and while not proven, some doctors think that growth hormones in cows may be a contributing factor – who the hell knows?); to eat organic foods when possible (not sure I buy the efficacy of this) and more vegetables (sadly, my guess is that the yummy, fried pakora at Mahek doesn’t count); maintain or even increase my exercise regimen; and to keep my weight down. (I love this: according to the standardized body mass index, I’m overweight, despite my fairly modest diet and running/yoga/weightlifting regime. Um … OK.)

Finally, upon being released, Sophie and I went to Panera for lunch as the snow accumulated (this was the day of the recent snowstorm). I still needed to pick up another friend and her boyfriend at the airport, then ferry everyone down to Bowling Green, where our friend Sandra, her husband Josh, and their five month old baby daughter Mimi awaited our arrival, in addition to that of another couple traveling by car from State College, Pennsylvania.

The flight was a little late coming in, not surprisingly, and because of the snow, the trip to BG took about two hours rather than the 75 minutes estimated by Mapquest. But I got everyone there safely, despite the fact that the snow showed no signs of stopping. Joe called, saying he’d already been on the road from work for more than an hour, and he wasn’t anywhere close to Lily’s daycare, which closes at 6 p.m. (He finally got there at 6:15, and fortunately, the owners were understanding of the circumstances.)

I flirted with the tempting idea of staying with all my friends, holed up against the storm in the gorgeous, converted church that is our friends’ home in BG. I could stay up talking with them, have drinks, and laugh – things that have gotten so much harder to do with my far-flung friends since we all started having families of our own.

But then I thought of Lily having to be awoken and dropped off at daycare the minute it opened, since Joe would have to go in as early as possible. And I had nothing that I needed for an overnight stay, since that hadn’t been the plan for that night. So although I’d only been in BG for about 45 minutes, I told everyone that I needed to try and get home, storm be damned, and that I’d be back the next day.

With a deep breath, I headed back out into the storm, where for a long while, it was just my little green Escort and several semis on the highway. The road wasn’t visible for most of the way – you just kind of had to “trust your feelings,” a la Luke Skywalker, about where lanes MIGHT be – but miraculously, I made the usually 90 minute trip to my house in about two hours. 

When I was about three miles from home, I called Joe on my cell. It was about the time that he’d be getting Lily ready for bed, and I wanted to see her.

So after a long, emotional roller coaster of a day, I parked my car in our garage and ran toward our back door. Lily, dressed in her pink penguin pajamas with footies, stood in the kitchen with Joe. Her face broke into a big smile when she spotted me, and she said, “Mommy!” I just about squeezed the stuffing out of her. Then she pretended she wanted to get up in her high chair and eat.

“She just wants to stay up longer and spend time with you,” said Joe. “Little smarty pants.”

“That’s OK with me,” I said, helping her climb up and get buckled in.

This seemed a fitting end. She and I would have to always be vigilant about our health – but ultimately, all you can do is strap yourself in, reach for every opportunity you can grab onto, and try not to live in fear.

For me that night, this entailed splitting one of those really good bottles of wine with Joe after Lily went to bed. After several hours and a bit of natural disaster drama, I finally, finally got to celebrate.

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