At the time of my diagnosis, I was 36 years old, with no family history of breast cancer. The doctor tested me for a genetic cause, as is standard practice. When the test came back positive for the BRCA2 mutation, I was not the only one affected. The genetic counselor and I met to discuss the cancer history in my family tree, and it was strongly suggested that my parents and siblings undergo testing.
My brother Steve, who is three years younger at me, was the first one to sign up. He’s an empathetic guy, and was concerned not only about me and what I was experiencing but also about the possibility of him passing the mutation to his children. When he called me with his negative test results, I mumbled something about being relieved and thankful, and then hung up the phone. I promptly sobbed out my relief for a good 20 minutes. It’s bad enough the guy lived through the comparisons of our bald heads while I was on chemo. He doesn’t need to replicate my experiences with the rest of the treatment plan.
My youngest brother, Nate, would be slower to jump on board. It’s not that he wasn’t motivated to do it, it just wasn’t lighting a fire under him. In October 2014, a little over a year past my diagnosis, I encouraged (okay, nagged) him to get the testing done.
“Alright,” he told me, “I’ll do it, but only if you post video of yourself doing Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance to Facebook.”
This may seem like a strange and unrelated request to make, but then you don’t know Nate. What can be done to take the tension out of a crappy situation? He will find the way. He’s the one on family vacations that has all 9 of the kids following him around, hanging on his every word. When we were kids and struggling to eat our vegetables at dinner, he was the one that would have us laughing until milk came out of our noses. He’s the guy that took over 50 selfies with the disposable cameras from the reception tables at my wedding–in 2002, before selfies were actually a thing. He’s been known to break into song and dance at inappropriate times, or do his velociraptor impression when you are trying to be serious. He’s our Jim Carrey, the life of the party, Mr. Good Times.
I needed that laugh in October 2014. Within the past year, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, had both breasts removed, had a surgery to repair skin that didn’t survive the mastectomies, had chemotherapy and radiation, adjusted to medications, dealt with expanders and breast reconstruction, and had a complete hysterectomy. The mental and emotional toll of it all could weigh me down at times. A call or text to Nate was a reliable relief from the stress.
I was taking myself and BRCA2 very seriously, which forced his hand. He suggested something to pull me back, to remind me that, genetic mutation or not, we were the same people we had always been. Our lives weren’t defined by cancer and test results, and our relationship has never functioned by means of serious conversations and tension.
That night, I was full of bravado. “You got it,” I told him, ignoring the fact that fatigue was my constant companion those days and I was lucky I was upright at that moment. I was going to dance, and not just dance, but provide evidence of it to the world.
I procrastinated. I knew I had an excuse and I milked it for all it was worth. After a few months, my sister-in-law (Nate’s wife) told him to get the testing done without causing me public humiliation. The BRCA2 mutation is passed directly from a parent to a child, with each child possessing a 50% chance of having it. Nate gave in to her, and I am eternally grateful for that second sob-inducing phone call. Now I know both of my brothers are mutation-free, and their children are as well.
The fact that I didn’t hold up my end of the deal nagged at me. I told myself I would find the time to memorize the dance routine and surprise him with it. For a while, there was even talk of a zombie flash mob backing me up, but I worried it would terrify the kids. I’d watch the video for a few days and become frustrated because I couldn’t remember the sequence of steps. (I’m not a trained dancer, unless you count those three years as a young kid when I took lessons in someone’s basement. I don’t think they apply here.) I didn’t expect to knock it out of the park, but I didn’t want to look like a complete idiot. Chemo brain has been a real hindrance, as well as memory issues associated with the loss of hormones and hormone-suppressing medications. I would get angry by those limitations and decide to push off the dance again. I had to continually remind myself that the whole point was to let go, to have some fun, and be a bit spontaneous. The goal was to be bold, right?
In January 2015, I set a hard deadline of March 20th. We were hosting a family gathering that day and I knew Nate would be there. It was time for me to buck up.
I spent a few days watching the video repeatedly. Saturday night, I practiced in front of the computer screen. Sunday morning, Baby #1, who studies dance, supervised me for an hour while I practiced in our music room, barefoot and sweating. She suggested I keep the video running during the performance.
“You are going to be nervous with everyone watching you,” she told me. “It would be good to have it as a reference.”
She encouraged me and didn’t criticize, but rather giggled in the spirit of the occasion. Thankfully, she isn’t old enough yet to be supremely embarrassed by the thought of the video being on You Tube.
After rehearsing, my left foot felt funny. “Could I possibly having given myself a brush burn by dancing?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “Never happened to me before.”
An hour later, I was limping. I took off my shoe to examine my foot, and realized one of my toes was broken. Thanks, Osteoporosis.
Broken pinky toe or not, it was showtime. I think I would have done better if I hadn’t glanced at Nate at all, because those were the moments I screwed it up the worst. I’ll take the humiliation, though, since it brings the knowledge that Nate’s cancer risks aren’t the same as mine. I guess you could say I’m possessive of my big sister role and the responsibility that comes with it.
The deed is done. You’re on notice, Nate. Paybacks are a bitch.