In Bustle's Braving BRCA column, writer Sara Altschule discusses how her mental health changed after finding out she carries the BRCA gene mutation.
Dealing with anxiety has always been something that was “normal” for me. I’m an over-thinker and an over-analyzer to the nth degree. If I didn’t worry so much, maybe I would forget that Monday meeting I needed to prep for. Or, maybe if I didn't over-analyze, I would have dropped the ball on planning my BFF's birthday party. Because anxiety is something I’ve always dealt with, it’s almost like it’s a part of me — a part of who I am.
When I found out I carry a mutation on my BRCA gene (aka the breast cancer susceptibility gene) in March 2018, and that I have a greatly increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, you can only imagine how intense my anxiety became. My “normal” anxiety went from livable to unbearable. I couldn’t focus at work, my heart was racing, I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I sometimes felt numb of any emotion. It guess it's all fun and games until someone tells you you carry an 85% chance of developing breast cancer.
After I found out I carry the BRCA 2 mutation, I knew I needed to make some tough decisions. One of those tough decisions was deciding if I wanted to have surgery to reduce my risk of breast cancer. It was my anxiety that actually led me to make the decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. I can’t stress enough how much of a personal decision it is for women carrying the breast cancer gene to have this surgery or not. But for me, I knew what I could handle and I knew what I couldn’t.
I’m the person who gets anxiety about flying, work meetings, and first dates. I knew my anxiety about developing breast cancer wasn’t just going to just go away. And honestly, it would probably only get worse. If I had decided to go the surveillance route, every six months I would have had to get a breast MRI and a mammogram and wait to hear my results. I didn't want to face that anxiety every six months, so I elected to have a prophylactic double mastectomy. Even though that surgery was terrifying and comes with its own set of anxious feelings and emotions — like having panic attacks about being under the knife for so long and fearing the unknown — I knew ultimately this was better for my mental health and well-being.
I made a decision to take control of my body but I needed to take control of my mind. My parents urged me to seek help and start going to therapy. After a couple of sessions, I immediately started to feel better. I had so much built up emotion that I remember my first couple of times I went, I just cried the whole time. It was a much needed release for me. I made a point to try to only eat organic foods (avoiding chemicals set my mind at ease) and cut out the processed foods. I also upped my workout game. I made a motivating playlist to run to and tried to direct my negative energy and anxieties into my workouts. I vented to my friends and family and leaned on them when I needed a shoulder to cry on. And, I started to journal my feelings in the morning, writing down what I was grateful for and what I was scared about.
All of these things helped me tremendously when it came to facing my emotions head on. I was able to face this surgery and I believe my mentality helped me go through recovery successfully. Even now, eight months post-surgery, I still have to utilize those same things to help me with my anxiety. I'm human — I still have many moments where I obsess over the tiniest of things and dwell on things I cannot change. Even though I've conquered having a double mastectomy, I still find myself getting anxious over moments that may seem way smaller. In fact, just two weeks ago, I had a full blown anxiety attack over work. But it does help to put things into perspective and remind myself, "Girl, you've gone through so much and came out on the other end." Having anxiety is a constant battle in my head. It's me trying to remind myself to take a moment and breathe. I cannot control everything, and that is okay.
Through this journey, I realized that no matter how many times I thought about what could happen, it didn't change anything. All of the time I spent over-thinking and worrying only took up space in my head and time away from me. Even though I'm always going to be a bit anxious and scared of mostly everything, I learned that I have more power over this than I thought. I can get the help that I need, I can take steps to help improve my quality of life and I can share my struggles with others. And, yes, this BRCA diagnosis will always give me some unpleasant feelings and worries, but it's also given me a new perspective on life and a new perspective of myself. And even more, it gave a deeper look into my own mental health.