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On genetic testing, fake nipples, and other considerations

At age 25, comedian Caitlin Brodnick tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation, placing her at extremely high risk for developing breast cancer. Three years later, she had a double mastectomy. We sat down with Caitlin to talk about genetic testing, fake nipples, and more. 

Seal Press: You chose to have a preventative double mastectomy at age 28. Have you ever regretted your decision?

Caitlin Brodnick: Not so far! As I write about in the book, it was a very difficult decision to make and I resisted having the surgery for a long time. But I reduced my risk of developing breast cancer from 87% to 1%. And I love having breasts that I literally designed myself—perfect for this control freak.

SP: Do you think that more young women should undergo genetic testing?

CB: I think they should inquire about their risks if cancer runs in their family or if it’s recommended by a doctor. But it is not a casual decision and, in my experience, it’s best to work with a genetic counselor. I loved mine so much I went back for a second visit; they are really wonderful at explaining this entire insane process.

SP: The BRCA1 mutation was passed down from your father’s side of the family, where almost all of the women have died of breast cancer. How did your father relate to your diagnosis? Has your relationship with him changed?

CB: Cancer has sometimes felt like a resented member of my family: it was always there and we always hoped it would leave without causing too much wreckage. My father of course was devastated to find out I have the mutation, but also in a crazy way I think it was a relief because we were able to address this monster we were all running from. To know there were medical procedures and solutions catered to this condition was comforting. And now after the mastectomy, he can rest a little easier knowing breast cancer isn’t in my future.

SP: You’re a comedian, and this book is very irreverent. Are any subjects off-limits for jokes when it comes to your experience?

CB: I am happy to make fun of myself. I would never joke about other patients or another woman’s medical experience. But my story is up for grabs!

SP: How did you feel about your body before your diagnosis? How has that changed?

CB: Ugh, I hated it. I always felt like my breasts took over my 5-foot frame. I just felt like my breasts were too big and they made dressing myself and even sitting up straight difficult. Now I am much happier and proud of how well my body healed after surgery.

SP: One of the ways you dealt with your diagnosis was by drinking—a lot. How has being sober changed your relationship with your body?

CB: It definitely made me pay attention to my body: what I loved and hated about it. I’m not just drinking my feelings under the table.

SP: What is the deal with your nipples? You have to choose new ones?

CB: Yes! If you opt for reconstructive surgery, you can choose your own nipples. You’d be amazed at the array. I still can’t choose! I cannot commit to a nipple. For some reason, that has been the most challenging part of the process for me. Hopefully one day I will be able to find my forever nipples.

SP: Is there anything you wish you could do over?

CB: I wish I had connected with more women who were in my position and joined a support group. I had no idea that there were organizations that would have been able to help me through this process, and I wish I had. This book was what I was looking for when I was starting this journey. I hope I can be a source of some support for women going through the same things I was.

SP: You write that you were worried about how your husband would react to “losing” your very large breasts. Has your relationship with him changed since the surgery?

CB: I feel better about my body and I am happier, so he is happier. Occasionally we will talk about my historic breasts but it’s never without saying, “Those were huge,” and then we both remember how much of a pain they were. But when they were fun, they were very very fun.

SP: What do you hope this book will achieve?

CB: I hope this book can be a tool for women and families who might have a BRCA diagnosis or mastectomy in their future. When I was first looking into cancer prevention options, and as someone who didn’t even have cancer, I was really overwhelmed and didn’t know where to turn—so I just shut down and did nothing. I want this book and my story to be a comfort, hopefully helping to make them feel less alone. And I hope it can provide a little humor to a very difficult topic.