By the time I find out the future written in my body, my mother has already lost her hair in chemo, so she sits next to me in a wig in the waiting room. The walk from the waiting room to the office seems long. The genetic counselor is asking about the snowfall in New England, where Justin, my husband, and I visited his family over Christmas. I don't want to talk about the snowfall, though; I want to scream. My mother and I are walking into the caverns of the Cancer Center, where she gets weekly treatment for breast cancer.
Before I left for Christmas, I got three vials of blood drawn to send to a lab that would test it for the same BRCA1 mutation my mother has. The mutation causes up to a 90 percent chance of developing breast cancer and up to a 40 percent chance of ovarian cancer. Today, we are walking to the same room where we learned my mother's results, with Hannah, the same counselor. She had made a family tree for us both, branches and circles looking more like a biology midterm than the manzanitas and oaks I grew up climbing.
Hannah, mercifully, tells me as soon as we're sitting down that my fears are confirmed. "We found the same mutation that we found in your mother," she says, pushing a stack of papers toward me to confirm, although it's my body we're talking about, which feels fine.
She is business-like and sympathetic, and for a brief moment I think how awful it would be to give people bad news for a living when you can do so little to help them. "I know it's not what we were hoping for," Hannah says impotently. My mom holds my hand; she is the only person who knows exactly how I feel, and she is sorry for this thing she could not help. Later, she even apologizes, but an apology implies intent, and I know she would get breast cancer every year to keep her child from having to go through it. She is that sort of mother, the sort who loves me beyond my own understanding.
"If you're interested in having children but don't want to pass on the mutation, you have a number of options," Hannah tells me immediately. "You can do IVF and only implant the embryo that didn't inherit the mutation, or test a fetus you conceive naturally with the intention of terminating it if it has inherited your gene." The chances are 50 percent, a flip of the coin.
"Can we just take our chances?" I ask. After all, medicine moves at the speed of light. I seem to have too much control over some choices and not enough over others.
Hannah explains that a sentence written in our bodies is misspelled. The sentence should read "The big black dog sees the ball." Instead, my mother's and mine say "Pig big ball black sees." All of our bodies have our futures written. My mother and I just got to read ours sooner. But because I can elect to get prophylactic surgeries now, while I'm still healthy, I have a chance to rewrite the ending of my story. It's not an easy choice even if I'm happily childless, because it requires making a decision in this moment that will impact the rest of my life.
When I go to the bathroom a few minutes later to text Justin my results, I see a sign that says, "Sometimes all you can do is laugh." I told Justin not to take the morning off work to come with me, because I was confident I would be fine. After all, I felt fine. I have no symptoms of illness. He replies that he's so sorry, we'll figure this out, call him when I leave. We both know the only way to cut the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer is simply to remove any organs or tissues — ovaries, fallopian tubes, and breast tissue — by age 35. I am 31. The small window I have to conceive, carry, and deliver a baby feels like it's closing on us as we stick our heads out for air.