In late 2009 at the age of 40, Amy Byer Shainman, a mother of two from Jupiter, Florida, found out that she carried a BRCA1 genetic mutation, which put her at high risk for both breast and ovarian cancer. Tests showed that she inherited the gene from her father.
After sifting through her options with a genetic counselor and high-risk oncologist, she decided to go ahead with two preventive surgeries. In March of 2010, she had a complete hysterectomy, removing her healthy uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. Then in September of that year, she had a preventive nipple-sparing mastectomy followed by immediate reconstruction with implants.
At the time, her daughter was 8 and her son was 5, both far too young to understand why anyone would intentionally remove a healthy body part. Or to grapple with the realities of what it means to carry a genetic mutation that puts you at high risk for certain cancers.
“At that point, we discussed it in an age-appropriate manner,” she said. “I told them, ‘Mommy’s going into the hospital for a Mommy check-up.’”
Shainman knew she would eventually explain the decision to her children but wanted to wait for the right moment. That moment came when Angelina Jolie Pitt revealed in May 2013 that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy in order to hip check a BRCA1-driven breast cancer, a drastic but effective way to beat the devil at his own game.
“My daughter had seen a story online and turned to me and said, ‘Oh my god, Mom. What is up with that Jolie lady? She, like, cut off her boobs or something,’” said Shainman. “In that exact teenage tone. I took that as my cue to explain to her what she’d done — and what I’d done.”