I vividly remember commuting on the LIRR at the end of June 2018 and talking to a dear friend of mine about how my life was at an all-time 10.
Why a 10? I had just gotten back from a productive business trip to Cannes (which has been on my vision board for years) and was having the most magical summer with my family and friends.
I am 35 years old, live in Long Island (insert Ashkenazi Jewish raspy voice and obvious accent), am happily married for 9 years, have two incredible children Riley and Pierce, and I thrive on living my life to the fullest. I am a “yes girl” by nature and refuse to say no to fun. The other option is having FOMO, and I cannot suffer from that. However, what makes me the most unique is that I am a BRCA1 mutation carrier. Knowing I was positive for the BRCA gene further instilled my mantra of work hard, play hard. I apply this to all areas of life including motherhood, marriage, friendships, and my professional life.
Prior to July 18th, five words that would have been used to depict my personality were positive, fun, reliable, hard-working, and energetic. This July, my entire world was turned upside down when I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer (Triple Negative). New adjectives such as strong, inspirational, warrior, and rockstar have been added to the definition of Gabby Stoller Wasserman.
My family history is super interesting and I promise it will blow your mind as we are a true science project:
Maternal Grandmother: Breast Cancer
Maternal Grandfather: No Cancer but BRCA Carrier
Paternal Grandmother: Breast Cancer
Paternal Grandfather: No Cancer (lucky duck)
Maternal Great Aunt: Breast Cancer
Mom (my hero): Ovarian Cancer, BRCA Carrier
Father: No Cancer, currently waiting on results for BRCA test
Mom Sister 1: deceased due to Ovarian Cancer, BRCA Carrier; her daughter does not have the gene
Mom Sister 2: No Cancer, No BRCA Gene
Mom First Cousin (daughter of Maternal Great Aunt): Breast Cancer, No Gene
Now that you have a full understanding of my family, you can imagine how much cancer is woven into our family conversations. I will never forget when I was 20 and my mom sat me down to discuss her BRCA gene discovery and how I was lucky to be accepted into an early surveillance program at Sloan Kettering. I was confused as to how to process this information. After all, I was focused on graduating college and boys. My biggest decisions were: what party to attend, whether I should wear a mini skirt or a tube top, and choosing among tequila, 99 bananas, or jello shots as my evening cocktail.
By 21, I was at Sloan Kettering multiple times a year seeing my breast doctor and gynecologist. The waiting room was like a Jewish baseball team (Goldsmith, Wasserman, Goldberg, Birnbaum) and I was consistently surrounded by those receiving bad news, under chemotherapy, or wondering how I got here. I was 21, did not have cancer (yet was being treated like I would get it), and was unaware if I had the BRCA gene. I followed the program and did my mammography’s, MRI’s, and ultrasounds. I could have paid rent for how much time I spent at Sloan. The only breaks I had were when I was pregnant with my nuggets and had to see an OBGYN who could deliver; Sloan focuses on saving lives (not bringing them into the world!).
In 2012, at 29 years old, I had my baby girl Riley (also known as Riley Face). She was the most delicious red head and it changed my entire being. One day during my maternity leave, I turned to my mom and declared I was ready to get genetic testing. When I am determined to do something, I make it happen very quickly. I immediately got an appointment, brought Riley in tote, and walked to Sloan Kettering’s genetic office to do the blood test. Becoming a mom made me realize that it was selfish to not know if I had the gene, and that I was lucky to have the opportunity to take control of my health and future. A few weeks later, I was told I had the BRCA1 mutation, and my chances of breast and ovarian cancer were much higher than the average female. Action mode kicked in and my husband and I made our game plan. After having a second child, we would discuss with my Sloan team the appropriate time to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy and hysterectomy (typically before 40 for ovaries, before 50 for breasts). I refused to allow myself to get cancer and go through what my mom and family had to. I felt empowered to follow the research and guidelines.
We waited a year or so after the news of our second, and had Pierce Marley (yes, after Bob Marley) in 2015. I thank my lucky stars every day that I had a boy. He is just the most cuddly and sweet, he’s obsessed with me (mama’s boy), and is the definition of a fighter/warrior/hero. Pierce was born with Microtia Artesia, a very rare condition when one ear does not develop in the womb and conductive hearing loss occurs. I thought my world ended; I was not prepared for this and nothing at any point indicated this birth defect.
I would not change a thing about Pierce nor the experience with him; you see, it taught me that I am up for any challenge, and everything thrown my way was another opportunity to empower me to grow. Pierce is doing amazing, is so proud of his hearing device, and is speaking so articulately. He would not be like that if we hid, did not publicly speak about his diagnosis, and did not instill confidence at such a young age. He is my spirit animal, and anytime I need motivation, I just need to look at him and see how much he has accomplished.
After getting settled in Long Island, the real conversations with Sloan started in October 2017 about removing parts to avoid the words “you have cancer”. Ovaries were our main focus because of my mom and aunt, and there was research that fallopian tube removal would reduce my risk drastically until I was ready for a full hysterectomy. Like I said, I move quickly in life and in December 2017, I underwent surgery. Recovery was between 2-6 weeks, and all I cared about was feeling protected.
Fast forward to July 2018 when I had my check up with the breast surveillance team. In between catching up, showing pics of P & R, how life on LI was, a lump on my right breast was discovered. She truly thought it was nothing but knowing my family history, it was best to be paranoid and pursue (thank g-d!). She marked it with an X and left me branded for the next step. I already had a pre-scheduled mammogram two days later and they put me in for a sono right after. During the sonogram, the pathologist came in for a second opinion and informed me that the lump was “suspicious”. I demanded a biopsy right away, and before I knew it, this “suspicious tumor” was being extracted and sent off. For 5 days, I was in a panic but I knew….the numbers were against me.
“It is not the news we were hoping to see; your tumor is 1.6cm, and you have breast cancer. You will have a bilateral mastectomy and we have set up appointments in the next week to meet your surgeon, plastic surgeon, and discuss treatment options”. At the appointment, my full pathology report was revealed. I had triple negative breast cancer (not common but more so in BRCA patients) and would need 8 rounds of chemotherapy. My head spun, I basically blacked out, and I cried hysterically. I was not supposed to get this, I thought. I did everything right, and could not believe I was in this situation. Not to be cocky, but my breasts and my hair are MY THING. After two kids, they were still great and small /perky enough, and my hair was wonderful. I could not believe how many physical changes I would have to endure. I got myself together and we designed our approach. Surgery would be 7/27 and chemotherapy would start 8/28.
Fifteen minutes post diagnosis, I decided to approach this like Gabby Stoller Wasserman, and use my experience to help others. I knew my attitude, perspective, wit, and rawness would empower others to get genetic testing, be proactive about their own health, and raise awareness of the realities of breast cancer and treatment. By no means is chemotherapy a walk in the park—you are exhausted, lethargic, foggy, achy, bald (made a new bitmoji!), and forgetful.
Writing for me has been therapeutic, and I created the blog https://hakunamatatas.blog/ to document my experience. You can follow my detailed journey here and find more information on how I am dealing with the hair loss, how I am responding to chemo, how incredible my support system is, how I am balancing this and motherhood, how I am missing working, and how I am still living life to the fullest.
It goes without saying that I am strong mentally and physically due to my support system. I have the BEST family, husband, children, friends, and team at Sloan Kettering. Early detection is key and I am forever grateful that I did my genetic testing years ago and have been in such great hands for so long. It allows me to approach this with a half glass full mentality and remain true to my optimistic, positive, and fun loving character.
P.S. Thank you Dr. Robson for the best advice ever; hoops & a Hermes headscarf cure all. It sure does make you feel fabulous and confident.
Graphic By: Sydney Mastrandrea