Her name was Blanka.
She left Czechoslovakia in 1911 when she was 16 with her husband Joseph who was 12 years older than her. They settled in the northern United States.
Over the next several years, Blanka bore six children, two girls and four boys. Her husband was away much of the day, working in a factory for 12–14 hours at a time. Blanka was alone much of the time, raising her family and keeping house.
When she was 34, Blanka became ill. Then she died, leaving her six children alone with a distant father. The year was 1929.
On her death certificate, the cause of death was simply “Women’s Cancer.”
A Medical Mystery
Blanka was my great-grandmother. Little is actually known about her in my family. My grandfather was her son. He grew to be a stoic man of few words who never spoke of losing his mother when he was just 11.
Although my great-grandmother died of cancer, the gene is still alive in my family.
When my mother was 35, she discovered a lump in her breast. The doctors performed a surgical biopsy and determined it was pre-cancerous. They removed the lump and quite a bit of surrounding tissue. My mother has never been diagnosed with cancer, but that procedure made her vigilant about getting checked and taking excellent care of her health.
Her sister, my Aunt Jane, was a different story.
Aunt Jane was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 49, after a routine mammogram failed to catch the existence of early stage breast cancer. She died less than a year later at the age of 50, after the cancer spread at a rapid rate through her body.
As for me, I have had three biopsies on my right breast in the last nine years. Thankfully, all results have come back benign. However, the lack of a full understanding of they type of “women’s cancer” my grandmother died from has left a gaping hole in my medical history.
The BCRA Gene Test: Not a Simple Solution for Me
I have asked my mother multiple times what type of “women’s cancer” her grandmother had, but she has no answers either. We don’t know if she died of cervical, ovarian, breast, or any other form of cancer. I have asked doctors what “women’s cancer” typically meant back in 1929. They generally shrug their shoulders and say it was some sort of cancer impacting the reproductive system or the breast.
After my second biopsy, I began to ask about the BCRA gene test. I received two different perspectives.
My family doctor advised against it. “If you do it and it it shows you have the gene, how will that really change your approach to your health?” he asked “You are already proactive and healthy. Besides, it will just give your insurance company information that will jack up your rates.”
My ob-gyn said I should pursue the test. “There are some tests that could occur more regularly if you test positive for the gene,” he said. “You should consider it as a step in understanding your health.”
I’m still not convinced.
From what I have read, the BCRA test is not completely conclusive. It doesn’t answer every question. For now, I’m not sure taking the test will give me any real answers, just more real anxiety.
My Course of Action
I am committed to staying as healthy as I can. Eating mindfully, getting regular check-ups, exercising, and doing all I can to avoid becoming ill is what I would do if I took the test anyway. I don’t need a gene test to tell me to do positive things to improve and maintain my good health.
In this day and age, I live my life as if I could be diagnosed with cancer at any moment. That is not a scary reality for me, it is one that is proactive. I make the choice to do the right things for my body and mind. I don’t need the test to scare me. I know what the realities are of living in this current toxic world. That means organic food, rest, restorative practices such as yoga and meditation. I build strength through pilates. I boost my heart rate through bike rides and elliptical workouts. I walk my dog every day. I enjoy a variety of foods in moderation. I visit my doctor for regular health checks.
I live on behalf of my Grandmother Blanka. She didn’t have access to healthcare like I do. I have already outlived her short life. Thanks to her, I am aware of the health issues I face. Every time I make a healthy choice, I am honoring her.
I am grateful to live in an era where diseases are named, not hidden behind polite phrases such as “women’s cancer.” That is enough of an advance to help guide my choices to live a healthy, productive life.