Allowing + Releasing Fear: I Have a Mutation in the ATM Gene
I had one hand on the mouse and my other palm and fingers pressed tense into the wood composite surface of my desk. With the weight of a steady gallop, my heart leapt in my throat, snuffing out any chance of a whisper or exclamation. All I could manage was a gasp— soft, but reverberating off the panels of my work cube swaying my torso in the chair. The screen in front of me kept shifting in and out of focus and the sound of my coworkers’ chatter was replaced with a low rumbling, the kind you hear when you yawn or forget to unclench your jaw.
My body had become so tense, I thought the murmur of my tear ducts opening was actually audible. And what did it sound like? It was singeing salt come to wash the glint from my eye as I reviewed the content of the pages in front of me. Within the contents of the grave red box: HIGH RISK: FEMALE BREAST CANCER.
There is a paralyzing tide that rushes in when one of your fears comes to greet you. To some degree, it was expected. I knew it was always there, this possibility that my genetic makeup held a secret about my future health and mortality. But I had often hoped my mother’s cancer diagnosis was just an unexplainable tragedy with no link to a foreshadowing. I had often brushed off the troubled look situated on doctors’ faces when I shared I was 9 months old and my mother was just 31 when cancer was discovered in her breasts.
My blood could not disguise the truth scripted in my DNA. In my mother’s DNA. We shared a mutation in the ATM gene. The gene that repairs damaged DNA, controls the rate at which our cells divide, and subdues tumors. A mutation in this gene is associated with a lifetime breast cancer risk of 17 - 52%.
I didn’t receive this information in the safety of a clinical space seated across from a doctor relaying the results in a fixed, steady voice. I was in the office trying to parse through a 9-page document filled with scientific words that are mostly foreign to me and hoping no one would walk over to my desk while my eyes were still wet. The same questions looped in my mind and out my mouth. What now? What does this mean? How do I prevent this from happening to me? How do I trust my body now?
I have worked hard to be a woman strongly grounded in my faith and trust in the benevolence of the Universe. I am one who believes that all things truly are working for me, and not to me. The things I experience are here to serve me, grow me, and stretch me. But if I’m being honest, I did not feel that benevolence in this moment, and for many days after. I felt overcome by fear and anxiety. Stories played out in my mind of all the ways my body could betray me— tomorrow, in a year, in 10 years.
I found myself recalling how the kids in my elementary school whispered that I had given my mother breast cancer. That it was me. That it was my fault she died. And immediately, I found myself on Google researching the connection between breast cancer and pregnancy and childbirth. When I’m ready to start a family, could the fluctuation of hormones destabilize my body and trigger a cancerous growth? Is that what happened to my mother? I know it is unhealthy to go down this thought path, but my mind wants to make connections and links. My mind wants to assess my personal risk and find ways to control that risk. To find the ticking time bombs that lie dormant and disarm them before they can detonate in my body.
Isn’t it unnerving how skilled fear is at going back in time to gather all our hurt and bring them right back to the present moment? Each wounded player fighting for a spotlight on the stage, to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be weighed before being cut from the scene. So I have given my fears the stage and I permit myself to feel it all. To allow it all. To write it all.
The most powerful lesson I have learned in my study of emotional awareness is that the best way to cope with our emotions is to allow them loving presence, free of judgment. The more we create resistance to our fear, our shame, our anger, our sadness— the longer they linger within us and begin to form negative internal dialogue and stories. That stress and anxiety, when unchecked, can birth illness in the body. And that’s not what I want.
I have allowed fear its moment on the stage and can now send it off. I release it and choose to focus on living my healthiest and best life no matter what comes. I know there will continue to be moments when I feel fear as I navigate my journey, but I will allow it space… and release.