Life’s a Trip, then you have a Double Mastectomy
Leah Walker January 20, 2015

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Angelina Jolie. No, not for being multi-talented, charitable, and ridiculously attractive, but instead for publishing her op-ed piece in The New York Times. Because of Angelina’s 2013 article, “My Medical Choice,” I no longer have to explain in great depth why I’m choosing to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction, despite not being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Picasso Paris France4

My genetic cards were laid on the table in 2006. Along with my brown hair, blue eyes and tendency to freckle, my mother also passed along the BRCA gene, just as Angelina’s mother passed it on to her. With this mutation, I have approximately an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and a 25% chance of developing ovarian cancer in my lifetime.

Regretfully, the identification as BRCA positive surfaced as a result of my mother’s diagnosis of stage three ovarian cancer. The diagnosis, though horrendous, wasn’t shocking news. Since my mother lost two older sisters, one to breast cancer and the other to ovarian cancer, a Duke University geneticist identified us as likely carriers of the BRCA gene. A blood sample would confirm or deny his suspicions.

Instead of taking the genetic test, my mother refused. She didn’t want to live with that knowledge. Her choice was a gamble—one she lost. Had she taken the test then she would have known she was BRCA positive. Preventative measures could have been taken. She could’ve had her ovaries removed and a double mastectomy. This would’ve drastically reduced her chances of developing breast and ovarian cancer, and she might still be alive today.

Picasso Paris France1

Being identified as BRCA positive has been a monumental pain in my ass. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time and money at M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital. I’ve been poked, prodded, smashed, and crammed into tubes for the better part of a decade. I relive the downward spiral of my mother in the faces of every cancer patient I see, and then selfishly thank God that I don’t know their suffering first hand. I stand on pins and needles until my MRI and sonogram results come back as normal and wonder if this will be the time they don’t. Now, I’ve put my life on hold, canceling a ski trip and delaying another to Mexico.

But I’m lucky.

I’m lucky because I know my odds of being diagnosed with ovarian and breast cancer, and I have the ability to reduce those odds. I’m lucky because I have a world-class team of oncologists who monitor my health. I’m lucky because I have health insurance that enables me to be poked, prodded, smashed, and crammed into tubes without the fear of financial destruction. I’m lucky because I have a legion of family and friends who love and support me. I’m lucky because I’ll have countless other opportunities to hit the slopes and drink margaritas on the beaches of Mexico. And last but not least, I’m lucky because I’ve not been diagnosed with cancer.

Picasso Paris France3

I’ve pushed my luck long enough. I can’t run off to Paris and burry my head in Bordeaux and beef tartare. I can no longer shove the inevitable to the far corners of my mind. I’ve had nearly a decade to wrap my head around this reality, but it just doesn’t seem long enough.

Friends and family have dubbed me as brave, that my decision is a courageous one. However, I feel the exact opposite of brave. I’m scared of the pain, recovery, and the cosmetic results. But more than anything, I’m afraid of cancer. I guess that’s what truly keeps me on this path. Dan Rather said, “Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.” These words have become my mantra and run on a continuous loop in my mind.

This past November while living in Paris, I had lunch with a French friend. She asked of my plans in the New Year, and I told her about my surgery. Although sincerely concerned, she went on to say that she’d ‘never consider such a thing’ and that she ‘couldn’t imagine life’ without her breasts. I politely smiled, believing that if she’d seen what I have–how cancer ravages the body–then she might not be so concerned about two fatty mounds of flesh. Besides, I thought, my breasts will defy gravity thanks to the wonders of silicone.

Picasso Paris France2

I can’t expect that everyone will agree with my decision to have a double mastectomy, but they don’t have to. It’s not their choice to make. This decision is personal, and one I’ve thought long and hard about for the last nine years. By choosing to remove my breasts, I’m lowering my chances of cancer to that of a normal woman, and that sounds pretty damn good.

I’m not Angelina Jolie and this website doesn’t have the reach of The New York Times, but I feel it’s important to share my story. Once this is complete, I may not go on to produce Oscar-nominated films, cuddle up next to Brad Pitt and a brood of beautiful children, or be recognized by Queen Elizabeth II for my global humanitarian efforts, but you can bet your ass that I’ll again be in Paris with a giant glass of Bordeaux and a plate of Tabasco-soaked beef tartare, while sporting the perkiest pair of breasts you’ve ever seen on a 40-year old.

Tchin-Tchin

All photos were taken by me at the Picasso Museum in Paris, France. May my plastic surgeon be better skilled at recreating the female breasts than Pablo. For more about my story, please see my first post, “Why I Travel: A Dedication and “New Breasts and a New Home in Paris.”

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

58 Comments

  1. You go, girl. I am praying for a swift, painless recovery. And this 27 year old is planning to be mighty jealous of your new girls. 😉 Keep your chin up and know that your travel blogging associates are wishing you well and back on your feet in no time!

  2. Oh Leah, I am so happy we got to meet this past weekend (finally) and that you wrote this post. As you so eloquently say ‘I can’t expect that everyone will agree with my decision to have a double mastectomy, but they don’t have to. It’s not their choice to make.’ You are very brave to share your story and know we are thinking about you down here in Florence <3

  3. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

    Never doubt your bravery. Many prayers for a successful surgery and a quick recovery.

  4. I think you are an amazing person and want to thank you for sharing your story – I hope I am never faced with this decision but take a little bit of strength from what you are going. through – I hope you are in Mexico soon having a delicious Margarita – in the meantime I will raise a glass to you in Australia

  5. It’s really a shame that breasts can be a woman’s enemy in so many ways….whether it’s because they are the place of cancer growth in so many women, the source of worry checking for lumps, the reason for comments from people if they’re big/round/perky/ enough, etc. I also have been following your story since you first wrote about it and am happy to know that you have all the things you listed as being lucky to have had. You are 1000% doing the right thing at the right time. I can imagine that you will feel relieved once it’s done. Wishing for a great recovery. xo

  6. The pain of making that choice was hard I am sure. I am not a doctor. I would not make the choice without talking to a doctor outside the states. There is a lot of changes in the last few years. There is a lot of things you can do before making that choice. You can mail your blood in yourself and get your own tests. I like many doctors in Germany. I have a few good ebooks that can give you more options. I just I just need a email address to forward them. I understand your don’t have cancer. I am not a fan of The two main cancer hospitals in the states. They have a few things in there tool box. Please get more education before you move on. Respect for being on top of it.

  7. Having peace of mind will be worth every moment of your recovery (you do get to eat ice cream during recovery though, right? That helps!) I know this was not a light decision. I’ll be praying for your quick and speedy recovery (with extra hot fudge and sprinkles I hope! And pork ribs. I hear those help too!) You are an amazing woman, no matter how perky your boobs will be. And yes, I will envy them. Real or not I always have boob envy. Cie la vie for the tiny A cups in the world. Ha!

  8. Super scary! In my opinion you are making a very smart decision, but truly, my opinion doesn’t matter. I really don’t understand how some don’t think woman should be able to make this choice if they want. Women augment their breasts all the time, why can’t they decide to get them taken off for any reason they want, especially if there is such a high risk of cancer? The very best of luck to you!

  9. I’ve never seen your blog before but this post brought my attention to it, I applaud you and your choice! No one ever knows what they would do under certain circumstances but I would venture to guess I would probably make the same choice, I wish you a speedy recovery, many glasses of red and plates of tar tar, Prost!

  10. I’ve learned that those of us who choose a life of travel often have a driving force behind it. My reasons are different, however my belief is the same: we cannot control the cards we are dealt, however we can determine how we play them. Bravo for a) knowing the cards in your hand; and b) playing them your way.

    Best of luck with your surgery and the next phase of your life!

  11. Your attitude is awesome, Leah! Best of luck with everything. And thanks for sharing. I know that many women have to deal with this and hearing other stories can be a source of encouragement and inspiration.

  12. Leah, you will be in my thoughts. When diagnosed, I viewed them as inconvenient appendages. You are the only one who can make the right decision for you. I’ll be sending positive thoughts.

  13. Oh Leah, what a challenging few years you have had my friend. I am so proud of you, I know that you have made the right decision for you. A John Greene quote comes to mind “I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met.” That would be you, somehow, I love you without ever meeting you! I support you 100%.

  14. Leah,

    I’ve been following your blog for quite some time now. Though I can’t imagine what you are going through, I respectfully support your decision. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Thank you for sharing your personal story with your readers and the world. I am sure that you have helped so many women who are going through a similar situation.

    Stay positive and strong. May GOD keep you in his arms throughout the process.

    We love you.

    Ruthie Turner

  15. Thanks for sharing such a personal story. My mum died of ovarian cancer too, and I’ve been meaning to get myself tested. This has reminded me to go, especially as I’ve just returned to the UK. All the best for the operation. It’s definitely the right decision.

  16. Thank you for sharing your story, Leah. Prayers for a speedy recovery and Blessing on all your trips that await you. ❤️

  17. Leah,
    Beautiful post and I totally understand your decision and I think it’s a great choice to take preventative measures to ensure you are here to enjoy your travels even longer! I wish you the best with your surgeries and recovery!
    Michelle

  18. Leah, you seem to approach everything you do with grace and intelligence. And then you have the courage to share with many of us who you don’t know. I believe you are doing what’s best and your hospital is first in this area of expertise. I just watched s friend lose a 3 year Ovarian battle and her denial til the end caused so much pain to everyone. All of our thoughts are with you brave girl and I hope I get to meet you in Paris soon

  19. Leah, never let anyone’s views distort your own. Prayers for strength and a speedy recovery. I look forward to your next post as always!

  20. WOW! You will be in my prayers Leah! I do think you made the right decision and yes, it was a brave decision. This, I am sure was not an easy decision, you chose life and that was a wise choice. For a number of years I elected NOT to have a colonoscopy. Even after I had collegues who had colon cancer I still was afraid of the simple test. My mother, who was 83 at the time, had a colonscopy and during the test the punctured her colon and that was enough for me to put off the test for many years and when I finally did have the test I had to have pollips removed and that scared the crap out of me. WTF was I scared of? Was it better to wait till it was too late or face things head on? I was a wimp, I chose to not face things head on. I have kids, an adorable husband and yet I chose to worry them and not have the test. What you are doing is brave and you are giving your loved ones a gift.

    I so enjoy your blog and I enjoy the fact that you love Paris as much as I do! I hope to meet you someday and your choice to have this surgery means I have a good chance of sitting in a cafe with you one day!! All the best Leah! You are in my prayers!

  21. Wow, thank you for sharing your story so honestly. And of course, with a splash of Leah spunk. I love that you’re continuing the conversation that will be so important to so many women. Cheers to you (and your soon to be new ‘ladies’), Leah!

  22. No doubt a difficult decision, but I applaud you for your proactive approach. Wishing you a very quick and comfortable recovery, and hope that meal in France tastes the best it ever has. =)

  23. Wishing you a speedy recovery my friend! As you know, my sister in law went through both a double mastectomy and having her ovaries removed, plus reconstructive surgery, after my mother in law passed away from breast cancer and then she herself was diagnosed with it in her early 30s. She is always willing to talk about it and I’d be happy to introduce you.

  24. Must have been such a difficult decision Leah and I think it’s so valuable that you kindly chose to share your story for others who may be reading this and may be able to relate. I know the fear of the procedures, pain etc must be worrying for you but like you say, I guess that’s always weighed up against a diagnosis of cancer potentially coming your way so I can’t even imagine what an emotional journey this must have been for you over the years. Wishing you all the very best for the operations and a speedy recovery. And I’m sure we’ll all be looking forward to reading more of your words and travel tales once you’re rested up feeling up to it 🙂

  25. I found out I am BRCA1 + in October and am having BSO next week and planning for PBM. Would love to hear more about your journey. Hope your surgery and recovery are easy!

  26. You’ve made a brave decision with regards to the surgery. And you’ve made another brave decision by choosing to share your decision publicly. (But you’re in the “right” club with Angie :-). No doubt you’ll look as lovely afterwards (or lovelier!) than you do now. And you’ll have many many years to enjoy lots of glasses of Bordeaux and plates of Tabasco-soaked beef tartare… Best wishes! And thanks so much for writing about this important topic :-).

  27. You truly are an ahhhmazing woman!! I trust you will be in great hands as God will be watching over you every min of your preparation, procedure and recovery!

  28. Leah – thank you for your openness and honesty. As a husband, as well as father of two daughters and grandfather of four (and still counting) granddaughters, I do appreciate your courage as you weighed your options and took appropriate action. Sharing this decision with others will be an encouragement and blessing to many.
    May God grant you full and speedy recovery!
    Blessings!
    Bruce

  29. What a smart, courageous and brave woman you are!

    Everything will go great and hope you have a speedy recovery.

    You are definitely going to come out of this stronger, go Leah…
    or as we say in French, Allez Leah 🙂

    All the best!

    K

  30. Heal quickly. I’ll meet you in Paris for that wine and beef tartare one of these days when you’re perky (and, sadly I’m still flat as a wall). 🙂

    You did the right thing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I did not test positive for BRCA but would have had the surgery, too, if I did (my mother is in remission from breast cancer).

    Sending much love!

  31. I fucking love you.

    Ever since I met you, I knew you were someone special. Ever since I read your About page, I knew you were a brave one. This piece just proves it everyone else.

    I’m lucky to have met you and hope I can cheer to this with you in some exotic city in the near future.

    I’m so proud of you. Thanks for inspiring me again.

    *hugs*

    -Maria Alexandra

  32. Hi Leah, As hard it seems and something which many of us would not want to face, it all comes down to what decisions individuals would make when faced with these choices. How many of us faced with such major illnesses knows what we would decide at the time? Maybe some of us would choose to go on Water Fasts, Juice Fasts, Meditate in a Cave for a month – all easier said than done, but what is important is that a person is well informed and is making the right choice for themselves. When you have “walked a mile in someone else’s shoes”, then maybe only then can you begin to understand what it is like for the person facing life threatening illnesses. All the best for a good recovery.

  33. I already hunted on google to find out
    what kind of surgery you had
    and then you have posted here
    you are elegant in everything
    you do
    so impressive
    living in Paris
    and then explaining
    what you did in such
    an artist
    creative way
    who else would do it this way
    I can not think of anyone
    and I am an artist

  34. As much as I love following your travel adventures, its the person behind the writing that keeps me coming back for more. Thanks for sharing this important and personal story in your life. My sister is a breast cancer survivor and your post brought so much of her journey back to mind – from diagnosis to mastectomy, recovery to reconstruction. Wishing you a speedy recovery and all the best.

  35. Leah! What an excellent read and you are something. Love what you said about courage and fear and how it’s just simply about moving on. You made the best decision, and I know that because YOU made it. More women need you in their life, and I’m so grateful to follow your journey. You rule. xxLC

  36. Bon courage, Leah! Fatty mounds of flesh are overrated in our society these days. And I second the idea that you end up with better boobs than those Picasso models.

    (First time commenter here, but now a fan. I’m looking forward to an update.)

  37. Leah, thank you for sharing such a personal story. I send you prayers and positive thoughts. You have a great attitude about this tough hand you’ve been dealt and that will carry you through and inspire others to follow your example. Angelina may be the celebrity face of this disease and difficult way to reduce your chances of getting it but you are the human face we can all relate to. Cheers to you!

  38. You. Are. An.Amazing.Woman. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re in my thoughts. 🙂 (ps. you’re breasts are going to be way better than Picassos!)

  39. Over a decade ago, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mom died of ovarian cancer. My mom made the same decision to have a double mastectomy. You definitely made the right decision FOR YOU. Not everyone would make this choice but even though I’m not a woman, I do understand. Good for you for doing this, taking care of yourself, talking about it, and still enjoying your life!

  40. Wow this really touched me. Having seen my mother suffer with cancer, I know exactly what you mean. I’m sure this was a very difficult to make and hope you have recovered well. Thanks for sharing.

  41. My story is a bit different. I was diagnosed with cancer after having a mammogram that showed nothing. I knew something was there so was sent out of town for a breast MRI. Our local hospital didn’t have such a thing. My mother also had breast cancer but it was dementia that killed her. My dad died of colon cancer. I just came home from my fourth colonoscopy. If he’d had the opportunity to have such a thing, he might still be alive. As for my breast cancer, that was frightening. I thought first I didn’t want to lose my breasts and then looked at my grand-kids and thought, I don’t want to die! So, in a way, I know your fear. I opted for a lumpectomy and had nodes taken from under my arm which came back clear. My mom had many nodes taken as they did back then and her arm was virtually worthless after that. I have zero side effects. I will start 33 doses of radiation next month but I’m going to do it in Florida. That’s the good news. I had to cancel a transatlantic cruise because I wouldn’t be done with radiation in time to go. I have scheduled another so we will be in South America on Princess for Christmas. I hate seeing obituaries that say “she died after a courageous battle with breast cancer.” I don’t want to wear pink ribbons or run any more Races for the Cure. I’ve run many and didn’t do me any good. I applaud your decision and wish you well. I have been to six continents and maybe will be able to see Antarctica on this next cruise. Keep on traveling. I plan to. By the way, I’ve heard breast cancer and colon as well as ovarian are all related so I was nervous about this scope this time but it turned out well. My story. Thanks for reading.

  42. Leah, I think we have all lost someone dear to the dreaded big C and if you have a choice to minimize your chances of going through the same then why wouldn’t you. I respect your decision and wish you a speedy recovery for your surgeries.

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