Should we stop telling BRCA+ women to do ovarian cancer surveillance?

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FORCE has a new webinar featuring University of British Columbia oncology professor Dr. Jessica McAlpine on the “Pros and Cons of Hysterectomy at the Time of Risk-reducing Removal of Ovaries and Fallopian Tubes.” Like all FORCE webinars, it’s worth watching.

During the Q&A, someone asks Dr. McAlpine why physicians continue to recommend screening despite the fact that it’s ineffective at diagnosing ovarian cancer (check around the 46:30 minute mark). Dr. McAlpine answers that “three fantastically well-run trials” have shown just how ineffective ovarian cancer screening is. She continues:

“I don’t think anyone’s convinced that screening makes a difference. I practiced in a center in the U.S. where they routinely recommended it, but I actually don’t think that’s correct. I think we don’t have any evidence to suggest those improve things beyond a standard pelvic exam. I think it comes down to prevention, which is you know the focus here here, risk-reducing surgery and otherwise. So I guess, why do doctors suggest it? Probably because we’re frustrated–some physicians are frustrated by their inability to offer anything more. But I think at the end of the day, the studies show an increase in unnecessary surgery with those screening modalities and that it didn’t save lives. So I would have caution with using those modalities.”

Dr. McAlpine’s response reminds me of a rather shocking slide that Sloan-Kettering oncologist Dr. Noah Kauff showed at the Joining FORCEs conference in Philly last summer. It illustrated that BRCA+ women who undergo regular screening for ovarian cancer actually have worse survival rates than those who don’t. 

The ineffectiveness of ovarian cancer screening is very well documented in scientific studies. I also have written a lot about the ineffectiveness of screening for ovarian cancer and my own run-in with what turned out to be unnecessary surgery last year:

  1. Pelvic exams are pointless, like everything else.
  2. HBOC Threat Level Orange
  3. Oophorectomy Sucks

Still, it’s rare to see someone in the greater HBOC community as prominent as Dr. McAlpine so openly admitting that ovarian cancer screening does. not. work. at. all.

What she doesn’t mention is the gut-wrenching anxiety screening causes multiple times a year; the time-consuming appointments and endless waiting rooms; or the onslaught of co-pays and other expenses–just to give BRCA+ women false reassurance.

All this makes me wonder: Why are doctors still recommending ovarian cancer screening to BRCA+ women when reputable scientific studies prove it’s useless? Why is the leadership of the HBOC community continuing to recommend it? Why am I still following through with ovarian cancer screening twice a year like a good little girl scout when I know it’s pointless or even harmful?

I know these are surprising questions for many people in the BRCA+ community. Those of us who are actively involved in HBOC advocacy know the drill: if you come from a cancer family, then getting tested, getting screened, and maybe getting surgery will empower you and save your life. It’s a reassuring soundbite, but it’s not entirely true, because we don’t have effective methods to detect early-stage ovarian cancer and the only way to save the lives of women at high risk for it is oophorectomy.

I’m considering stopping nearly all ovarian cancer screening. At this point, the only ovarian cancer screening that seems worth doing is the CA-125 test. It too is highly problematic and unreliable, but a recent study showed that it has some promise of detecting cancer once it has been administered for many years to establish a personal baseline.

We need to have an honest conversation in the BRCA+ community about whether or not we’re going to continue to encourage women to undergo psychologically, physically, and economically costly ovarian cancer screening that we already know does not save lives.

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[This quote is probably misattributed to Carl Sagan, but the point stands]

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Pelvic exams are pointless, like everything else.

Lisa SimpsonThree things we already knew:

1. Ovarian cancer screening doesn’t work. CA-125 tests and transvaginal ultrasounds rarely detect cancer before stage IV. In fact, at the Joining Forces conference, Dr. Noah Kauff showed a disturbing slide demonstrating women who are screened for ovarian cancer actually have higher mortality rates than women who are not screened. (Seriously, that slide was horrifying)

2. Self-breast exams don’t work. They do not detect cancer early, because by the time a tumor is palpable it has already been growing for many years. Women who do self-breast exams regularly do not have better survival rates than women who don’t do them, but they do have more biopsies, mammograms, MRIs, doctors appointments, false alarms, and anxiety.

3. Mammography doesn’t work, at least for women under the age of 50. It doesn’t detect cancer early as promised, even if you buy into the myth of early detection (which you shouldn’t). In fact, breast cancers typically grow 6-8 years before they’re detected by a mammogram. Younger women–that is, premenopausal women–have more dense breast tissue that hides tumors on mammography film. And again, it has repeatedly been shown that mammograms do not save lives, but they do lead to more biopsies, false alarms, and over-diagnosis of DCIS.

Now here’s a fun new fact: pelvic exams don’t work either.

Recently, the American College of Physicians (ACP) put out new guidelines that recommended “against performing screening pelvic examination in asymptomatic, nonpregnant, adult women”:

“Pelvic examination is commonly used in asymptomatic, nonpregnant, adult women to screen for pathology. Evidence shows that the diagnostic accuracy of pelvic examination for detecting ovarian cancer or bacterial vaginosis is low. The PLCO trial and cohort studies suggest that the screening pelvic examination rarely detects noncervical cancer or other treatable conditions and was not associated with improved health outcomes. The PLCO trial found no reduction of ovarian cancer mortality rates by screening with pelvic examination or by screening with CA-125 or transvaginal ultrasonography, both of which are more sensitive for detecting ovarian cancer than the pelvic examination itself. Thus, there is indirect evidence that pelvic examination (as distinct from cervical cancer screening) in asymptomatic, adult women does not reduce morbidity or mortality rates. No studies were identified that addressed the diagnostic accuracy of the pelvic examination for other gynecologic conditions, such as asymptomatic pelvic inflammatory disease, benign conditions, or gynecologic cancer other than cervical or ovarian cancer. Many false-positive findings are associated with pelvic examination, with attendant psychological and physical harms, as well as harms associated with the examination itself. Harms of pelvic examination include unnecessary laparoscopies or laparotomies, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, pain, and discomfort. Women with a history of sexual violence, and particularly those with PTSD, may experience more pain, discomfort, fear, anxiety, or embarrassment during pelvic examination.”

Pelvic exams do more harm than good. They lead to false positives. They traumatize women who are survivors of sexual violence, as 1 in 5 American women are and 1 in 4 female college students are. They’re humiliating and sometimes painful. Women who fear or dislike them (and who doesn’t dislike them?) may avoid going to the doctor to avoid a pelvic exam. Most importantly, pelvic exams do a poor job of detecting gynecological diseases and do not lead to lower mortality rates from gynecological cancers. In short, pelvic exams are a waste of time, money, and emotional energy.

I’ve already seen some women express disapproval of the new ACP recommendations, just as many women expressed disapproval over the new guidelines that came out a few years ago that recommended against mammograms for women under the age of 50. It seems many women are accustomed to certain protocols and find them reassuring. But women’s healthcare should not be based on supplying false reassurance.

Some women, like Amy Robach in this interview, vehemently argue that a mammogram, self-breast exam, or pelvic exam found their cancer and saved their lives, despite scientific evidence that shows otherwise. So let’s be perfectly clear. Mammograms, self-breast exams, and pelvic exams do detect some cancers. However, detecting cancer and improving survival rates are not the same thing. So yes, an individual woman’s cancer may be found by these methods, but that doesn’t mean her odds of survival are any better than a woman whose cancer was detected later or by other methods.

[Warning: historical digression ahead. I have a point, I swear.]

In the early-to-mid-twentieth century, women who found suspicious lumps in their breasts were anesthetized for biopsies. If cancer was found, doctors immediately performed Halsted mastectomies without waking up their patients from anesthesia. In other words, women were not consulted about whether or not their bodies were going to be brutally disfigured when their breast cancer was treated–can you imagine what that must have been like?

In case you need a reminder of what Halsted mastectomies did to women’s bodies:

RadicalMastectomy

All this, despite decades of scientific evidence conclusively demonstrating that Halsted mastectomies were utterly unnecessary for the treatment of breast cancer and that women who underwent Halsted mastectomies actually had lower survival rates than women who had simple mastectomies or breast-conserving lumpectomies.

Why did doctors keep performing Halsted  mastectomies despite conclusive evidence that they were unnecessary and ineffectual? Because physicians simply preferred doing immediate Halsteds, no matter how detrimental they were to patient health and well being. Doctors believed, despite incontrovertible research otherwise, that radical surgeries saved lives–just as many women believe, despite incontrovertible research otherwise, that mammograms save lives.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist health activists fought long and hard to get surgeons and oncologists to base clinical decisions for female patients on well-designed scientific studies and randomized clinical trials. Breast cancer activist Rose Kushner spent hours in medical libraries exhaustively reading medical journals after she found a lump in her breast and devoted the rest of her life to scientifically driven women’s healthcare. And yes, Kushner was a feminist. (Check out Barron H. Lerner’s Breast Cancer Wars for more on this topic)

Ok, so here’s why I have indulged in this historical digression on immediate Halsted mastectomies and feminist activism:

It drives me absolutely crazy to see some women in the BRCA+ community dismissing overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of personal anecdotes. Activists like Kushner spent their lives fighting for women’s healthcare to be based on reputable research studies, rather than the personal preferences of male physicians and the patriarchal medical industry. This shift took decades. It was hard won. It improved the lives of countless breast cancer patients and their families. Show some respect.

The ACP recommendations against pelvic exams are based on 70 years of medical research, not anecdotes. Instead of denying the evidence that ovarian cancer screening, mammograms, self-breast exams, and pelvic exams are a waste of time, BRCA+women should be furious. After all, we’re subjected to ineffectual and scientifically unproven screening methods far more than average women. This puts us in an untenable position. We are at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. We need to be screened for it often. Current screening methods for breast and ovarian cancer are lousy. What are we supposed to do?

I am so fucking sick of this shit–the constant appointments, the long waits, the anxiety, the endless copays, and the fights with insurance to make them pay for humiliating exams and testing. Cancer screening disrupts my life for months on end multiple times a year, and it pisses me off to find out it’s deeply flawed, if not downright ineffectual. I’m not a physician or a scientist. I don’t know what should take the place of antiquated screening methods, but I can read and interpret scientific studies. I understand when my time, money, and emotional labor is being wasted on bullshit protocols.

We need better screening for women’s cancers. If breast cancer history is any indication, then the first step to getting better healthcare for BRCA+ women is accepting that old methods don’t work and demanding better.

 

Oophorectomy Sucks

I get it: risk-reducing bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (RRBSO) is the only proven way to protect high risk women from ovarian cancer, a disease that is particularly hard to detect, psychologically and physically devastating, and usually deadly. There are currently no accurate ways to screen for it in symptomless women and by the time symptoms do arise the cancer has almost always already spread beyond the pelvis and it is too late to save the patient’s life. Moreover, the only way to make a diagnosis for ovarian cancer in women with symptoms is surgery, which is at best unpleasant (as I can attest) and at worse can lead to life-threatening complications (as a friend of mine who nearly died during her seemingly routine RRBSO can attest). RRBSO is the only scientifically proven way to prevent ovarian cancer and, as a bonus, also reduces the risk of breast cancer. It’s absolutely clear that oophorectomy saves women’s lives.

HOWEVER.

Oophorectomy brings its own horrors. Surgical menopause is no joke. A recent UPenn study found that the vast majority of women who undergo RRBSO experience some form of “sexual dysfunction, menopausal symptoms, cognitive and stress issues, and poor sleep” after surgery. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when I saw this study: after all, thousands upon thousands of women in the BRCA+ community have been griping about surgical menopause for decades. Did we really need a study to tell us premature menopause is bad? Apparently so, if we want doctors and researchers to take us whiny hysterical ladyfolk seriously.

Despite the fact that oophorectomy is a surgery with serious repercussions, BRCA+ women are pressured (by other BRCA+ women, by doctors, by researchers, by genetic counselors, etc.) to undergo RRBSO after child-bearing is completed and by the age of 35. The pressure to get an oophorectomy by 35 is even more intense than the pressure to have a mastectomy, since removal of the ovaries also reduces the risk of developing breast cancer. From my (very, very pre-menopausal) perspective, oophorectomy is a far more radical surgery than mastectomy, as difficult as that procedure undoubtedly is, because removing the ovaries throws women into instantaneous surgical menopause. The ovaries continue to help regulate hormonal function in women even after natural menopause and oophorectomy has a range of often unpredictable side effects and not well-studied medical repercussions.

When women do not live by the commandment to remove their ovaries by 35, they are often explicitly or implicitly blamed for their own cancers. Take this otherwise sympathetic article entitled “Cancer sufferer Elisha Neave, who chose to delay preventative surgery dies aged 36.” The headline suggests that if only Elisha had followed HBOC recommendations and removed her ovaries by 35, then she would be alive today. After Elisha passed away, many BRCA+ women responded to this particular headline by expressing empathy for her and her family, but also by asserting the importance of early oophorectomy for high risk women. As I’ve written before, there’s a huge flaw in this logic: Elisha’s choice to delay oophorectomy was well within the guidelines for BRCA+ women. Her ovarian cancer struck unusually early, even for a BRCA+ cancer, and official guidelines cannot account for cases like hers. In other words, the oophorectomy by 35 commandment wouldn’t have saved her. (Incidentally, it’s funny/infuriating how BRCA+ women are censured by the general public and mass media for both choosing and not choosing to have prophylactic surgery. We just can’t win.)

The often repeated deadline to have an oophorectomy by 35 is misleading, for a variety of reasons. For starters, BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations carry significantly different risks for ovarian cancer, which require somewhat different surgical management. What’s more, ovarian cancer in BRCA1 and BRCA2 women tend to develop at different points in their lives. BRCA1 women are more likely get ovarian cancer after the age of 40, while BRCA2 women are more likely to get it after the age of 50. Again, this means that BRCA1 and BRCA2 require different surgical management strategies. Few things bother me more in the BRCA+ community than hearing “oophorectomy by 35” get bandied about as a set-in-stone commandment when in fact the timing of oophorectomy might differ significantly according to which genetic mutation you have.

Speaking of commandments, who gave us this one? At the Joining FORCEs conference a few weeks ago, Dr. Noah Kauff noted that the “oophorectomy by 35” deadline actually originated in a misreading of his own research. In his study, he and his co-researchers observed that RRBSO after 35 is reasonable for BRCA+ women. Somewhere in the telephone game of media reportage and social media that recommendation got turned into a hard and fast rule, but it’s not. To my surprise, Dr. Kauff said that because BRCA2 women are less likely to develop ovarian cancer than BRCA1 women and that when they do it usually emerges after the age of 50, he doesn’t even recommend screening BRCA2 women for ovarian cancer until the age of 40 and may even counsel a BRCA2 patient to delay oophorectomy until her early-to-mid-40s (depending on the patient, of course).

What was so refreshing about Dr. Kauff’s presentation is his acknowledgement that BRCA+ women should have individualized prevention plans based upon their particular situations, family histories, and mutations. This was not the sort of attitude I saw among many male doctors at the Joining FORCEs conference, most of whom were clearly on TEAM OOPH. For instance, during his presentation on testing for founders mutations abroad, Dr. Steven Narod commented that “The benchmark for success is the number of oophoretomies performed on healthy women.” His reasoning is that oophorectomies are the only proven way to prevent ovarian cancer in high risk women. He’s not wrong, but the issue is far more complicated than a unilateral approach suggests.

And yes, TEAM OOPH is a boys’ club. Women doctors and researchers are far more likely to acknowledge that surgical menopause comes with an array of negative psychological, cognitive, and other effects, some of which are temporary and simply unpleasant and others that may be chronic and serious (at the same conference, Dr. Karen Hurley remarked that BRCA+ women face an “avalanche” of imperfect choices–truer words have never been said).

History tells us that patriarchal medicine has long removed female organs with little regard for women’s desires, agency, and quality of life. The prevalence of unnecessary hysterectomies even today is just one example of the ways in which this cavalier attitude towards women’s bodies continues in modern medicine. The truth is that the female reproductive track has not been well studied and there’s a lot that remains a mystery about such quotidian biological processes as menstruation and hormonal cycles. Considering this context, it’s little surprise that ovarian cancer in particular is poorly understood. The solution to such widespread ignorance about female organs should not be removal. It should be more research.

But research takes time and although important work is currently underway, it won’t be done in time for many BRCA+ women who need to decide how to lower their risk of ovarian cancer. For now, oophorectomy will remain an important option for risk reduction for BRCA+ women.

While we wait, the BRCA+ community–patients, doctors, researchers, genetic counselors, groupies, etc.–need to make some attitudinal changes.

  • We need to keep in mind at all times that BRCA1 and BRCA2 are very similar but not identical.
  • We must demand prevention management strategies that take into account these differences.
  • We need to demand more research on the risks associated with particular mutations within BRCA1 and BRCA2.
  • We need to demand personalized risk estimates based on our individual mutations, family histories, situations, and values.
  • We need to acknowledge that ovarian function is important for a woman’s psychological and physical health even after her childbearing years and even a woman who does not want to have (more or any) children may have valid reasons for ovary conservation.
  • We need to demand surgical alternatives to oophorectomy.
  • We need to demand alternatives to surgical risk reduction altogether.
  • We need to demand better ways to manage surgical menopause.
  • We need to remember that surgery is just one strategy for risk reduction and not a mandate, and that there are good reasons for choosing surveillance or chemoprevention.
  • We need to stop implicitly blaming women for not doing “enough” to prevent their own cancers, whether that be not exercising more or delaying oophorectomy.
  • We need to acknowledge that quality of life is incredibly important.
  • We need to understand that not all doctors agree about timing oophorectomy and we need to familiarize ourselves with these medical debates.
  • We need to reject one-size-fits-all approaches to risk reduction and need to make well-informed, medically sound decisions for ourselves.
  • We need to stop being so matter-of-fact about tearing out healthy ovaries and sending women into surgical menopause. It is, at best, the lesser of two evils.

 

In Memory of Elisha Neave

Elisha Neave passed away yesterday. I wrote about her and her sisters recently here.

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I have been thinking about Elisha a lot lately. I did not know her personally, but her story struck a cord with me. I’ve been sitting in doctors’ offices waiting to find out if I have ovarian cancer, and I’ve been thinking about Elisha all the way down there in Australia struggling to survive a rare and aggressive form of it that she was diagnosed with at just 33 years old. Every time I’ve told a friend that I’m being screened for ovarian cancer, I’ve told them about Elisha.

Because it’s not supposed to be like this. Even BRCA+ women, as unlucky as we are, are supposed to have more time than Elisha got. In the United States, the standard of care for BRCA1 women is oopherectomy by 35 years of age. Women with a BRCA2 mutation, like the Neave sisters, are supposed to have even more time before removing their ovaries and facing surgical menopause. BRCA2 mutations have a lower risk of ovarian cancer, and it typically strikes BRCA2 women at a later age than BRCA1 women. In fact, I’ve heard doctors comment that they’ve never even seen a case of BRCA2 ovarian cancer before the age of 50 in their practices.

So Elisha Neave delayed oopherectomy in her early 30s because she wanted to have more children. It was an emotional decision, but it was also a rational one based on solid medical evidence. She ought to have been safe; she wasn’t. BRCA+ women are never truly safe from hereditary cancers and almost everyone in the HBOC community knows at least one BRCA2 woman who has had ovarian cancer before the age of 35.

I am struck, once again, by the great injustice of all things BRCA. We should not have to watch our loved ones die of these cancers. We should have better choices for managing the risks of these cancers. We should be able to prevent these cancers. We should have more effective ways of detecting these cancers. We should have better ways of treating and curing these cancers. Twenty years after the discovery of BRCA2, we don’t have any of these things.

Every time I hear about the death of a BRCA+ woman from breast or ovarian cancer, I am forced to relearn these lessons. That I am not safe from my own body. That I cannot protect my loved ones from the genes we share. That life with a BRCA mutation is hatefully unfair. That all the things that I viscerally feel “should be” or “ought to be” are not, in fact, assured.

 

HBOC Threat Level Orange

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I may or may not have ovarian cancer. I’ve had a host of “whispering symptoms” for a while now that three different general practitioners have repeated misdiagnosed. Each time I reminded them that I was BRCA+ and asked if I should be screened for ovarian cancer. They waved it off. As is typical with ovarian cancer, these symptoms could very well turn out to be something else entirely. My doctors are rushing me into extra screening this week.

The timing is ironic. My usual twice annual screening was coming up soon anyway, so I already had appointments for a CA-125 test, ultrasound, and physical exam that have now been urgently condensed and sped up. I’m also preparing for my prophylactic mastectomy surgery later in the year. So the same day my doctor sits me down with a grim face to say it may be ovarian cancer, a bunch of supplies I ordered from Amazon appeared on my doorstep–shower chair, bed tray, wedge pillow, etc.

It’s a funny thing to be preparing for a surgery you may not be able to have because of more pressing medical issues. Part of me is mentally putting the mastectomy surgery on hold until I have answers about these symptoms. Part of me thinks the symptoms will turn out to be much ado about nothing and I should carry on with mastectomy plans. It’s hard to know what to do or how to occupy myself while I wait for answers.

I’ve been joking that this ovarian cancer scare has put my family and I on threat level orange, like the Homeland Security alerts. Hopefully, it will all turn out to be a false alarm. But one of the many frustrating things about having a BRCA mutation is that, in a way, you are always at threat level orange, not unlike Homeland Security terror levels after 9-11. If/when I’m told that I have “no detectable cancer” (which is as much as a high risk girl can possibly hope for), I’ll still be looking at decades of false alarms. Even if I have a prophylactic mastectomy with oopherectomy, salpingectomy, and hysterectomy, I will still be predisposed to other cancers. The best case scenario is a life of fear and threats with no actual diagnosis–a life of threat level orange.

This threat level system is really more my style

The Neave Sisters

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I recently purchased Veronica Neave’s Pieces of Me, a documentary companion film  to her autobiography about her family’s experiences with BRCA2. Unfortunately, the DVD is coded for a different region and won’t work on my American DVD player (digression: DVD regions are a total scam). I found part of the film on YouTube, so you can watch about a segment in which the BRCA+ sisters grapple with how to manage their risk. At one point in the film, Veronica Neave says “knowledge is a gift–or so I thought” and notes how difficult it is to figure out to what to do with the knowledge of being BRCA+ when the options for managing high risk are so “barbaric.” I couldn’t agree more.

I am really disappointed that I can’t watched the entire movie, because Veronica Neave and her sisters Chrissy Keepence and Elisha Neave have such an amazing rapport and they instantly won me over (incidentally, Chrissy is wicked stylish). But in my quest to find the film online, I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole. It turns out that the Neave sisters often appear in the Australian media to discuss BRCA+ issues. You can find a really great interview with them here and here that was filmed some time after Angelina Jolie announced her mastectomy.

The interview reveals that Neave’s mother Claudette is fighting a recurrence of breast cancer, her youngest sister Elisha (who in the film put off prophylactic surgery because she felt that she had more time) was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 33, and her father has also recently passed away. This is what it’s like to be in a cancer family: there is no reprieve.

The account of Elisha’s experiences with ovarian cancer is particularly gut wrenching (follow up on her here and here). It seems noteworthy that in the two BRCA1/2 documentaries that have been made–Pieces of Me and Joanna Rudnick’s In the Family–women in their 30s delayed prophylactic surgery and then faced cancer diagnoses a few years latter (in Elisha’s case ovarian cancer and in Rudnick’s case breast cancer). Mastectomy and oopherectomy are obviously very difficult, very personal decisions and not everyone chooses to go those routes. However, these films suggest that if you have chosen surgical risk reduction, then you should act sooner rather than later at the same time that they show that actually following through with surgery can be easier said than done.

Adding to the complexity of this issue is the fact that prophylactic mastectomy is considered “elective surgery” in Australia and not covered by the healthcare system there. This situation puts an appalling financial burden on BRCA+ Australian women to pay for their own risk-reducing surgeries if they can. In worst case scenarios, it makes risk-reducing surgery unavailable to those who can’t afford it.

UPDATE: I just discovered that you can rent the entire film on Amazon. Woot!

Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman

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Although mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes cause breast, ovarian, and many other cancers, I have tended to discuss mostly breast cancer here at the risky body. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that breast cancer poses the highest risk for BRCA+ women and that I am currently working towards lowering my own personal risk of breast cancer, so it is constantly on my mind.

Still, when I saw that feminist literary critic Susan Gubar’s latest book, Memoir of a Debulked Woman (2012), is on ovarian cancer, I wanted to read it so that I could better understand the disease, its culture, and the experiences of ovarian cancer patients. The fact that Gubar is a feminist academic pioneer writing on a topic relevant to me as a BRCA+ woman made the book even more appealing. Yet I have put off discussing it here, because I feel inadequate to the task of reviewing it. It’s a difficult topic to discuss, to say the least, and because there’s less of a discourse on ovarian cancer I feel like I don’t have the right lexicon for discussing it.

Memoir of a Debulked Woman is a detailed account of how a very intelligent, inquisitive mind grapples with being tethered to a diseased body with a terminal diagnosis. Gubar is a remarkable woman and this is a remarkable book.

Consider the way she describes her relationship with her husband, Don:

“Should Don or I die–how stupidly put!–when Don or I die, the physical departure would be, will be devastating. Yet surely that devastating physical separation cannot leave us or others bereft of our persistent relatedness to each other or of a profound and ongoing awareness of our persistent relatedness to each other. The location of that awareness remains nebulous in my mind, but not therefore less manifest. After the diagnosis and quite spontaneously, I found myself earnestly promising one and then the other of my distressed daughters, ‘I will love you beyond my death. I will love you from another place that you will palpably feel, and feel to be me loving you.’ Albeit confused, that declaration seemed to speak of the intense emotions sustained by the urgent desire to continue loving the beloved until and after death. I want to live as long as the people I love live. We will live so long as the people we love remember we love them” (27).

The memoir is filled with beautiful passages like this that evade the stereotypical rhetorics of hope and warfare that characterize so much cancer writing.

As a BRCA+ woman, I can relate to many things and situations that Gubar describes: stigma and shame, endless doctors, constant waiting, the barrage of tests, feeling the need to be your own advocate but feeling too stunned to do so, feminist suspicion of the medical industry, the sense of moving from the land of the healthy to the land of the sick. But there are many things that I cannot relate to: preparing for death, horrific surgeries that make prophylactic mastectomy look easy, terrible complications, etc.

Gubar details the barbaric procedures she undergoes and the painful side effects and complications that she endures in an effort to “[tell] the truth about the experiences of the female body” (31). She does not spare the humiliating details. Such candor is difficult to for writers to sustain and difficult for audiences to read, but it is incredibly important to tell the truth about women’s experiences with cancer. Although it’s a cliche to call cancer patients brave for living with their diseases, reading this memoir I can’t help but think that Gubar is incredibly brave to give such an honest, graphic account of what it’s really like to have ovarian cancer.

The book left me feeling angry, fearful, and despairing. Angry that women with ovarian cancer don’t have better treatments available that will enable them to maintain a high quality of life or potentially save their lives. Angry that  women don’t have better options for detection and prevention of ovarian cancer. Fearful that, as a BRCA+ woman, Gubar’s realities lay in wait in my own future. Despairing because it seems so unlikely that these problems will be solved in the near future or that Gubar will ever be cured of ovarian cancer.

Gubar was first diagnosed in November 2008. She completed this book in December 2010. I read in an interview that she was in remission, again, in summer 2012. I wish I knew how she was doing now. I have always thought highly of Susan Gubar’s work, and this memoir seems to me to an appropriate and important capstone to her career.

You can learn more about Gubar, her memoir, and ovarian cancer in a great segment from NPR here. Gubar is also writing a series of wonderful articles about living with cancer for the NYT here.