I always had big boobs. I would wear two sports bras and my breasts would still bounce when I ran.
That changed on June 2, 2009. I walked into the army's Walter Reed Medical Center with D cups that morning; by afternoon I was flat chested, wrapped in gauze and sobbing. The loss was tremendous. But mostly I felt overwhelming relief; a physical and emotional burden had been lifted.
For 17 years I'd been carrying around breast cancer baggage. My experience with the disease began in sixth grade. While other kids were snickering at the word boobs, I had to face the harsh reality that my mother had lost one of hers. I would get so embarrassed whenever I spotted her on the sidelines at my soccer games, her prosthetic breast floating all over her chest as she cheered me on. It was 1992, the year the pink ribbon became popular and breast cancer was coming to the forefront of social consciousness. But for me, the disease was the bully I could never really shake. About nine years later it came back full force, taking my mother's other breast and, eventually, the life of her sister, my Aunt Christine.
It seemed to run in the family, and, indeed, my mother tested positive for the hereditary BRCA2 gene mutation, which puts a woman's chance of getting breast cancer at as high as 80 percent, and ovarian cancer at 15 to 40 percent. Her results meant I had a fifty-fifty chance of having the mutation too. If I did, I would be faced with the decision of whether to have both of my breasts surgically removed to drastically diminish the scary odds or to take my chances and hope I didn't get the disease.
At the time we learned that my mom had the BRCA mutation, I was 25 years old and about to be deployed to Iraq. Overseas duty prevented me from getting the gene test done right away. In fact, four years passed, during which I met and married my husband, Patrick, and we had our daughter, Emily, now 4. Those years were rough, though. Not only was I constantly playing the "what ifs" in my head, but I also had a severe case of postpartum depression after Emmie was born. I'm not proud to admit that I turned to alcohol in order to cope. It was a dark and familiar place: I'd spent the early part of my twenties, during my mother's illness and my aunt's death, in a self-induced haze.
When I finally got tested and learned that I did have the same gene mutation, something in me just clicked. I knew I needed to take control of my health and my life; I had to be there for my daughter, and living with the threat of cancer was no longer an option. A month later I had the double mastectomy. It was a very difficult decision but one that I had already been grappling with for years.
When you choose to have this surgery, the first thing doctors mention is setting you up with a plastic surgeon for reconstruction. It's practically unheard of for a woman at my age to say "No, I don't want it." I had seen my mom cope really well without reconstruction, and in a lot of ways I admired her for that. Meanwhile, my Aunt Chris had had an awful time with an infection after reconstruction.
Margaret's Story, Continued
Mostly, though, I thought about how it would affect my daughter. After a mastectomy, you can't pick up anything heavier than a gallon of milk for a month. If I had chosen reconstruction as well, I wouldn't have been able to get on the floor and play with Emmie for nearly a year without worrying about her bumping my chest. I didn't want to miss that precious time with her. I might have had the reconstruction if it had been important to Patrick, but luckily it wasn't. He said, "I love you for you, not your breasts."
The fact that I'm a runner also helped seal the deal and gave me the strength to say good-bye to my breasts for good. I appreciated them for their obvious charms, but in all honesty, because I'm a petite person, I had always felt as if they belonged to somebody else. And, seriously, I hated all that bouncing.
Running helped me through my recovery. I started jogging two weeks after surgery. It was a bit weird at first because I had lost six pounds in upper-body weight and that threw my balance off, but I got my legs under me quickly and felt great. I loved going without double sports bras; it was as if I had been set free!
I ran the 2009 Marine Corps Marathon just four months after my surgery and qualified for the Boston Marathon, which I ran the following spring. Proving that my body is powerful and awesome really boosts my confidence.
Still, there are times when I'm shopping for dresses and I think, Things would be so much easier if I had gotten small implants. But those moments are rare, and I don't regret my decision. Taking action against the gene for the sake of my health has been the most empowering thing I've ever done. I'm a better mom, wife and person now. These days I've been working with FORCE [Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered; facingourrisk.org], a "previvor" group for those affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, and I share my story with women who are facing double mastectomies and deciding whether or not to reconstruct. Last year, through the organization, I also had the opportunity to appear topless as a body double in the Lifetime movie Five, about breast cancer. I'm glad I did it, because I want women to see the real thing. I want them to know: Womanhood isn't defined by your breasts.
Protect Your Breasts
Three Who-Knew Facts About Your Breasts
Girls now sprout breasts nearly a year earlier -- typically by age 10 -- than they did 15 years ago.
Breasts are bigger than ever: The average American woman is a 36C compared with a 34B just a generation ago.
Breastfeeding a baby every day uses about 30 percent of a mother's total daily energy, or the equivalent of walking seven miles.
Give your girls a fighting chance against cancer.
Stay at a healthy weight
A BMI of more than 25 increases your chance of getting breast cancer because fat cells make estrogen, which can cause cancer to develop and grow, says Marisa Weiss, MD, the president of Breastcancer.org and a coauthor of Living Well Beyond Breast Cancer.
Limit your consumption of meat and other animal protein, eat low- or nonfat dairy, and choose whole foods rather than processed ones. Be sure to load up on mineral- and vitamin-rich cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, arugula, kale, and cabbage.
Women who got at least 10 hours a week, no matter the intensity level, lowered their postmenopausal breast cancer risk by about 30 percent, a new study found. "I tell my patients, 'Exercise is no longer optional. It's mandatory,'" Dr. Weiss says. Find activities you enjoy and do them with friends so you're more likely to stick with it.
Limit yourself to three or fewer alcoholic drinks a week. "One drink means 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 1/2 ounces of hard liquor, not a bucket-size margarita," Dr. Weiss says. Having even one cocktail a day increases your breast cancer risk by 4 percent, research has found.
It's Not All in the Family
Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers cases are hereditary. While having a mother, sister, or daughter with the disease doubles your chance, all women are at risk for breast cancer. These are some of the factors that up your odds.
Getting your first period before age 12
Not having kids
Giving birth for the first time after age 30
Having dense breast tissue, as shown by a mammogram
Radiation treatments to your chest as a child or young adult
Weight gain as an adult
Drinking alcohol (even one drink a day increases your risk slightly)
Race (white women are more likely to get breast cancer; African-American women are more likely to die from it)
Using birth control pills within the last 10 years
Source: American Cancer Society (cancer.org)
Should You Get a Genetic Test?
If you have a family history of breast cancer -- especially any relatives with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation -- or ovarian cancer, or if you've previously been diagnosed with early-onset breast cancer or triple-negative breast cancer, you should meet with a genetic counselor to discuss testing, says Banu Arun, MD, a codirector of the clinical cancer genetics program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Use the National Society of Genetic Counselors' search tool at nsgc.org to find a specialist near you.