Every October in the United States, businesses, schools, healthcare professionals, the media, and beyond turn their attention to an issue that claims the lives of over 40,000 women each year: breast cancer. But for comedian, public speaker, and newly published author Caitlin Brodnick, every month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“I was born nine months after my aunt died of breast cancer at 33, so it really was a tragedy that took over my family,” Brodnick tells Bustle. “I was born and came into the world aware of breast cancer.”
Brodnick grew up in a family whose unofficial (and unwanted) mascot was breast cancer. She knew as a child that many of the women in her family had died at a young age from the disease, and when she learned why — BRCA1, a genetic mutation that prevents the suppression of tumor — she decided to get tested and find out if she, too, carried the mutation that meant an 87% chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime.
She tested positive, and after several painstaking years of trying to come to terms with that fact, Brodnick decided to have a preventative double mastectomy.
In her new memoir, Dangerous Boobies: Breaking Up With My Time-Bomb Breasts, Brodnick takes readers on her personal healthcare journey, from testing to surgery to recovery and beyond. A deeply intimate, highly accessible read, Brodnick’s book feels less like a memoir, and more like an extended conversation with a hilarious friend you've known for years. Instead of inundating readers with sterile medical facts and figures, or scaring readers with clinical talk and statistics, Brodnick uses her book to speak openly, honestly, and authentically about her experiences with cancer, her journey towards body acceptance, her struggles with addiction and mental health, her sex life, and everything else someone going through a potential breast cancer diagnosis would want to know.
“All I wanted when I was going through the surgery was something like this," Brodnick explains about the inspiration behind writing Dangerous Boobies. "Something that someone could pick up or read a chapter and throw it across the room if they wanted.”
For Brodnick, getting the information about her own genes and her heightened risk for breast cancer was terrifying and overwhelming all at once.
“When I got that information at 21, I don’t think I was able to process it, and I didn’t have the resources and the support system," Brodnick admits. With her new book, she hopes to be exactly that for other women experiencing those same feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. Writing it, however, proved to be an even bigger challenge than the newbie author realized.
"It was so much more of a personal struggle and a journey for me, because I never in a million years thought I would ever write a book, and I never thought I was able to or capable of it," Brodnick tells Bustle. "I felt like a fraud at times [...] but writing it, I just kept going. I would get stressed out, and my husband would say 'Caitlin, it's not about you. It's wonderfully about the girl you're trying to help.'"
And her book does help readers who are seeking comfort during their own cancer diagnosis, but more than that, Dangerous Boobies helps any readers who are unsure about their bodies, struggling to cope with mental health issues, or even fighting addiction.
“I have learned through all of this that my body is doing the best it can to handle whatever I throw at it," Brodnick says of her new found outlook on body image. "Your body isn’t the enemy here. You can have the most perfect boobs, and you will still have your demons in your head. You can fix one part of your body, and your brain is still not fixed, so I think a lot of those cliches about loving your body to me means that just know it’s trying the best it can. My body doesn’t want to be sick or slower or going at a different pace than it's used to."
Now, after receiving her double mastectomy and recovering from the surgery, Brodnick is more in love with her body than ever before, and even more confident about it.
“It’s so lovely that my scars and my transformation is just a part of who I am now, and a part of our relationship," she says. "I feel lucky, really lucky.”
And Brodnick feels lucky for more than just that reason. She never ceases to stop thanking the people in her life that helped her through the testing, surgery, and recovery periods, especially her father and her husband. What's more, she feels lucky to have met a group of women who helped her come to terms with her alcoholism, a struggle only made worse following the results of her genetic testing. She credits these women with helping her get sober, and helping save her life.
“I think that it took me a little bit of time to realize I had a drinking problem," Brodnick says. "I didn’t see many women my age that looked like me that behaved like me that admitted that they were alcoholics or went through treatment. That was a struggle for me, until I went and found a support group and support systems and saw that there were all these girls exactly like me [...] That really made me feel better, to see that these people were choosing to not live in this nightmare that alcoholism creates. There is a life after you put down the drink."
According to the author, Brodnick's new found sobriety was a key factor in helping her make the decision to have her double mastectomy, a surgery she feels saved her life.
"After getting sober and after sitting with my thoughts, that's what helped me make the decision to have the surgery. What I was doing was drinking my fears under the table, and every time I though about cancer, I didn’t want to feel those feelings so I would get drunk."
It took Brodnick over three years to make the decision to have surgery, but once she settled on it, there was no turning back for the comedian.
"I had a moment when I realized I thought this surgery would give me more peace of mind, and make me feel more confident. Then, I remember waking up from the surgery: I was so happy and so relieved. Even when I was healing, I remember feeling so safe."
That confidence in her decision, however, wasn't entirely unwavering. She confesses in her book how worried she was about what her husband would think of her new body, how her new breasts would affect her sex life, and what people would think of her nipples. Even as recently as this year, Brodnick tells Bustle she felt a moment of doubt about her decision to remove her breasts when she found out she was expecting a child. She worried about her inability to breastfeed and whether or not her choice was really the best for her future baby. In the end, however, she was more sure than ever that her decision was the right one.
"My child won't see me die of breast cancer, and that's a wonderful gift," Brodnick says. "Breast cancer isn't going to be the main topic in a difficult, sad, emotional way the way it was for me growing up. They're never going to have those terrible experiences I had."
But Brodnick knows, despite the fact that she won't be faced with a breast cancer diagnosis later in life, the disease is still very much a part of her story and her history. The lessons her family's tragedies have taught her are some she hopes to pass on to her future child, and to anyone who reads her book.
"I really understood, from my parents and from my grandparents, that life is not a guarantee, and that if we have time together, we have to be loving and focus and appreciate every moment, because it could go," she says.