Nipples Option: A Memoir - Section 1: Not if but when

After learning I was a BRCA1 carrier, I began to struggle with anxiety. I have always been a worrier, but anxiety was different. I began to excessively worry about the “what if’s?” I worried about something happening to someone I loved. It took control of me. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would also worry that I didn’t have much time left. If someone would talk about the future, all I could wonder is if I would be alive days, weeks, months, or years down the road. I don’t know if finding out that I was a BRCA1 carrier is what triggered this, but I was suddenly thrust into a life that I no longer trusted.

This point in my life was particularly stressful not only because my genetic status has been revealed, but because I had just been accepted into nursing school. My lifelong dream was to become a nurse like my mother. She once joked that I was the child she least expected to follow in her footsteps. Probably because her and I butted heads most of anyone. But I knew from a very young age that I wanted to take care of people. Given my academic struggles, I never thought I would succeed in any form of education. I was elated to begin nursing school, but I was terrified. The “what if’s” were in full force. What if I failed at nursing school? Where would that leave me in life? What would I become? I was so under so much stress and experiencing so much anxiety that I broke out into full body hives. The hives first started on my right knee while working one night. I was working as a nursing assistant in the cardiac unit of a local hospital. This job, in retrospect, was likely contributing significantly to my stress and anxiety. I was the only tech for about 30 patients from the 3-11 PM shift. I was so rushed in my work to obtain blood sugars that I once took a blood sugar on a man that was dead. I didn’t realize he was dead. I was busy, and he wasn’t responding to my statement that I needed to get his blood sugar. Needless to say, that was because he was dead or dying. His cardiac monitor flatlined as I was exiting his room. The code team ran in as I moved on to the next patient. I thought to myself, “I will never admit this to a soul.” There was nothing I could have done. Okay, I should have made sure he was responsive before I poked him with needle. Lesson learned, trust me.

The hive on my knee, I assumed, was from something nasty I had picked up from a patient working on the cardiac unit. Over a few weeks, the hives spread to my other leg, my arms, my abdomen, my face, and scalp, and my ears. My ears were so huge they stuck out from my head. I looked like Dumbo. No one seemed that concerned until I woke up one morning with a swollen tongue. My dad demanded I get into the car to go to the ER. The ER treated me with IV Benadryl and the hives went away instantly. We left the ER and the hives all came back. It literally took months before they were gone. It was a stress induced hive reaction.

During this time, I was also dating a guy that I liked a lot. He was nice, older than me, handsome, and we had a lot of fun together. It wasn’t too serious, but he was my boyfriend and I thought he might be a good source of support of my genetic status. However, I had not told him anything about BRCA yet. His father had passed away from cancer so I must have thought he could empathize the gravity of the situation. One night on a drive home together, I burst into tears for no particular reason. I was under so much stress that I could no longer contain my emotions. He quickly pulled the car over to comfort me and ask what was wrong. When I revealed to him that had just found out I was a BRCA1 carrier and that I would likely need to have preventative surgery. His demeanor changed on a dime. He pulled away from me and got very cold. He told me that he was only 25 and he shouldn’t have to “deal with this.” I was in disbelief. I didn’t need the man to tell me he would hold my hand as I was wheeled into surgery. I didn’t need him to “deal with it.” I didn’t even need him to understand. I just wanted him to offer the slightest inkling of support or compassion, even if he couldn’t wrap his tiny little brain around a 21-year-old girl contemplating having her breasts removed due to a very high risk of cancer. I guess did need something from him that night. I needed him to be human. And he couldn’t. Our relationship ended right there and then.

Bridget StillwellComment