Why me, why cancer can happen to anyone
By Ashleigh Armstrong
I was the first. There was no medal. This definitely wasn’t a win.
The first call to my grandmother was to give her the news, I have breast cancer. The second was to ask if anyone in our family ever has had breast cancer. I had no recollection of anyone ever experiencing breast cancer. Who better to know than my grandmother? The holder of all information.
No one. No one for generations that she could remember had breast cancer. She asked if she could reach out to distant family to see if they had any recollection of distant relatives with breast cancer. She reported back: no one.
I never knew my father or his side of the family. My sister in her adult years decided it was important to reach out to them. I never felt the same. She asked if anyone on that side of the family had ever had breast cancer. No one that they could recall.
My oncologist recommended genetic testing. Most have heard of the BRCA genes. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie have tested positive and opted for a preventative mastectomy. I heard those stories. What I didn’t know was there were other genes that also went hand and hand with breast cancer and caused things like ovarian cancer. I agreed to the testing.
We did a panel of 52 genes. All of the breast cancer genes came back negative. I did have a mutation for colon cancer. This could’ve been inherited from my mother but the geneticist assured me that this gene would not cause breast cancer.
I was so confused. If this wasn’t in my family and I didn’t have a gene mutation, how could I possibly have a rare form of breast cancer at 31 years old?
Still in the middle of a pandemic, I received the news through a video call with the geneticist. My geneticist explained to me that since there is no familial background and I don’t have any genes my cancer is environmental. Environmental?! Yes, this was caused by cancer-causing substances in the environment.
It could’ve been the food I ate, the water I drank, the air I breathed. I went looking for answers, but they’re just not there. Scientists are still trying to figure out which exposures are harmful. There are still so many questions that haven’t been answered.
I was so lost when I received this news. I was also thankful. Thankful because this should mean my children can’t inherit a breast cancer gene from me. I wanted a reason though. A reason for this to happen to me.
If this taught me anything it’s that this can happen to anyone. You don’t have to have a family history. You don’t have to have a genetic mutation. What’s most important in the fight is early detection. If you feel something speak up. Fight for your right to be seen and heard.