A CHANCE TO SAVE MY LIFE
THIS MOTHER’S Day I am celebrating being a woman, even though I am about to have surgery to take away the things that, biologically, define my gender. I am having these operations even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with me.
My beautiful, strong, incredible mother passed away two years ago and didn’t have this chance. I have been given the choice to protect myself so that’s what I am celebrating.
I am a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation, which makes me far more likely than most women to develop breast or ovarian cancer in my lifetime, therefore, I am having a double mastectomy and my ovaries removed. The risk for women like me is 55-70 per cent, compared to the estimated 11 per cent risk in the general population.
Ashkenazi Jews are more likely than others to carry this mutation, which is a terrible legacy. Yet I am determined to see this treatment as a precious gift of life.
If I seem annoyingly positive, please don’t get me wrong. Two months after my mum, Lesley Feldman, died, I gave birth to my baby girl — Leila Isabelle. The circle of life is a strange one and it was probably the most difficult, bitter-sweet thing I’ve ever had to do. After surviving that, I know I can take on this challenge. I know my own strength because nothing can ever be as difficult.
A few years ago, Mum invited me over, along with my brothers Mitchell and Spencer. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few years before, and had stayed strong through everything. She sat us down and explained to us that she had decided to be tested for something called the BRCA gene mutation because she’d become aware that there may be new treatments available to people who were carriers. We were unaware of any family history, so she wasn’t expecting to test positively — but she had.
I didn’t actually take in much of what she was saying but I remember her explaining to the three of us that, as a woman, my risk was greater than my brothers. However, she insisted that I wasn’t to do anything about it until after I’d had my children. Noted.
This was before Angelina Jolie was diagnosed as a carrier of the BRCA gene, going public in 2013 about her double mastectomy. Suddenly the BRCA gene mutation was all over the media. I don’t know whether I was in denial but even then I didn’t identify myself with what she was going through.
Fast forward to January 2015, when mum was admitted to hospital before finally being transferred to the North London Hospice. Here, Mum and the whole family were all given the most incredible support and care as she approached the end of her beautiful, wonderful life.
Her room was filled with colourful drawings from the many kids in our family. My brother Mitchell set up speakers in her room and we were serenaded with songs from Barbra Streisand. I still can’t listen to her music without being transported back to that time. Believe it or not, we laughed. She wouldn’t let us feel sorry for ourselves, she wouldn’t let us wallow and we only cried a handful of times — once when I asked her how I was going to give birth without her…
She passed away in the early
I have been given the chance to save my life
hours of 3rd March 2015 and I did indeed give birth to my second child Leila eight weeks later, without Mum there holding my hand (in person anyway). As I held my baby daughter in my arms, I made the decision to go ahead and get tested for the BRCA mutation. I was told to expect the results in a few weeks’ time.
Time passed quickly — such is the way with two young kids — and, to be honest, I completely forgot about the results until one day at bath-time. My husband Lee and I were juggling to keep the children calm so they’d go to sleep easily (wishful thinking) — trying to keep more of the bath water in the bath than on the floor and getting them both dressed for bed. The phone rang and when I picked it up it was my genetics counsellor.
“Oh hi! How are you?” I said, taken aback. She sounded serious and went on to say that she was very sorry but I had tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation. I told her not to worry — weird things happen when you’re trying to multi-task — and that I’d call her back once I’d spoken to my family.
Lee and I settled the children in bed and then had a chance to digest the news. I still felt the same — it was what it was and, anyway, I had over-
Giving birth without Mum was so bittersweet
come the almost impossible by staying sane after losing my mum.
I made a vow to myself there and then, that I would do everything in my power to keep this attitude because that’s how she was and she had cancer and I don’t, so how on earth could I approach this journey in any other way than celebrating the choice I had been given? I feel like everything I do in life, I still do to make Mum proud and my attitude to this surgery is no different.
We shared the news with the rest of the family. My father, Trevor, gives me all his support and I’m forever grateful that he always made Mum feel beautiful, even at her lowest times.
My mum’s sister, Doreen, shares my positivity and has been by my side at every appointment. She didn’t miss a heartbeat of my mum’s journey and is doing the same for me. How blessed am I to have her. How blessed that she also shares this attitude.
The first step to our journey was to deal with the ovaries. I quickly found out that, soon after having this operation, the body goes into the menopause. The menopause! Oh no…mood swings, low sex drive, hot flushes, the list goes on and I feared for my husband and me. What has my incredible, supportive husband Lee done to deserve this? However, once you come out the
Stefanie and her mother at her wedding