When my wife was a senior in high school, her mother was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. After a lumpectomy and localized radiation, there was nothing to suggest that her cancer was atypical or likely to reoccur.

Two cases

My wife remembers not being too phased by the word cancer. After all, her mom quietly underwent treatment, continued to work, and never missed any of the important senior milestones. Homecoming, college visits and the prom—that’s what my wife remembers.

Less than a year later, her grandmother, an Italian Catholic living in a working class neighborhood of Milwaukee, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Found at a later stage and given a poor prognosis (the cancer had spread throughout her small frame), my wife remembers being swept into a rapid current of the unknown.

Treatments failed, and over the course of year, her grandmother’s spirited personality began to wane. Her grandmother died after a year of fighting.

A second bout

Seven years later and shortly after our engagement was announced, my wife received a call from her mother. Her breast cancer had returned. Her doctors were optimistic, but the family began to wonder if this really was just an ordinary case of cancer. Like an echo, reverberating and rippling from just out of view, there seemed to be some sort of nameless root.

Just a year before the family’s first battle with cancer, unbeknownst to them, scientists discovered that mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene significantly increased the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and that these mutations could be passed on to future generations.

"...it’s so important for all women (and men) to know their family history, to have an open dialogue with their doctors..."

Nearly a decade later, my wife’s mother, armed with information and a green light from her insurance company, tested positive for BRCA2 gene mutations. A two-time breast cancer survivor, she would need to decide how she wanted to proceed, whether to have preventative surgeries or just continue her increased screenings and doctor’s visits in hopes of finding any abnormality early. She would also have to tell the rest of the family. Her sisters and daughters (one, being my wife) would also need to be tested. Now, they were also vulnerable.

Asking the difficult question

I work for a breast cancer charity, so you might think I’d be the first in line advocating for my wife to be tested. I look at the facts all day. I educate others about the importance of early detection. But like thousands of people in the face of the unknown, my wife and I were scared. We now have three daughters, and cancer’s increased risk seemed to roll like an endless wave. This family history could be passed on to them, and the reality of preventative surgeries could be theirs as well.

Just like so many other Americans, it was Angeline Jolie’s brave op-ed piece in The New York Times that compelled us to find out the truth. My wife made an appointment just a few weeks after the story was published, and I’ll never forget the feeling of waiting to hear the news. I was sitting at my desk when she called with the results. She did not have any known genetic mutations. The tears welled, we both cried and the relief surged like a thousand breakers.

Each year, scientists are discovering new mutations, and though I live the mantra of hope, I never feel like the concern completely subsides. I think that’s why it’s so important for all women (and men) to know their family history, to have an open dialogue with their doctors and to advocate for not only yourself, but also your loved ones.