Friday, May 17, 2013

Playing With Lead

There's just been so much talk about Angelina Jolie's boobs that it's been impossible for me to not think about them this week.

Ask any cancer survivor and my guess is he or she completely agrees with Mrs. Pitt's decision to have a preventative surgery. If any of us could have looked into an crystal ball and seen our future diagnoses, we would have done whatever was in our power to not get that phone call. Including having beautiful body parts cut off. And given her family history and genetic testing results, Angelina was pretty close to being able to look in a crystal ball.

It's gotten me thinking about what crazy cell mutation caused me to develop Hodgkin's lymphoma a decade ago. Was it my genes or my environment? And how do I make sure I protect Ainsley from it?

From everything I've read and everything I've been told, there aren't good answers for these questions for the type of cancer I had. No current genetic test can predict its likelihood, no solid hereditary link has been found. That my mother died of lymphoma's cousin leukemia is interesting to my oncologist, but even he shrugs when I ask if this means Ainsley is more at risk than the average bear. Maybe; maybe not.

The Magic 8 Ball says, "future uncertain."

When I look back at my past, I can remember some choices and behaviors that, if not caused my cancer, certainly didn't help my physical health on the cellular level. Stupid things that seemed not a big deal when I was young, but are horrifying to me as an adult.

Here's why I got cancer. Maybe.

1. As a small child, I once got a thermometer out to play with (unsupervised, of course) and bit into it on accident, breaking it in my mouth. I spat out the foul-tasting substance that had been inside the thermometer, rinsed out my mouth, hid the evidence, and did not confess to my parents. Was it red alcohol or silver mercury inside that old thermometer? I honestly can't remember. Since I'm alive and gave birth to a child without birth defects, I'm leaning toward alcohol, but who knows? I have a mouthful of old mercury fillings, so I can't completely rule out mercury as a culprit in general.

2. In high-school chemistry class I played with some lead pellets. They were BB-sized and spread flat in a large dish in one corner of the lab and they felt really cool to rub my palms over while waiting for our experiment to start. A friend saw me playing with them and told me I probably shouldn't be touching them, and when I rolled my eyes at him he asked our teacher, "Hey, what would happen if someone were to play with this dish of lead pellets back here?" To which she responded, "That person would get cancer and have mutant babies." I stopped, but the damage was maybe already done.

3. My parents both smoked in the car with me in it with the windows rolled up. You can say what you want about second-hand smoke not being irrefutably proven to cause cancer, but breathing it during 3-hour car rides to Barbourville in the winter (in a small Chevy Cavalier, no less) cannot have helped. Especially that one time that, for reasons I cannot explain, I kept licking the yellow nicotine coating on the inside of my car window. (I might have been a weird little kid.)

4. I did not wear sunscreen until I was 17 years old. Seriously. Like, ever.

5. I went through an adolescent stage where I ate Penrose hot pickled sausages by the jar. On purpose.

6. As a young adult and new homemaker, I used the following products to clean different things in my home without gloves or proper ventilation: Tarn-X, Easy-Off, CLR, Lime Away, and Ajax. At least two of those had warning labels that said they contain compounds that have been shown in the state of California to cause cancer. Thank God they don't cause cancer in Kentucky!

I talk to friends sometimes about how much more today's kids are bubble-wrapped and protected than we were. I am one of these parents, so I don't judge them. But I catch myself saying things like, "Our parents didn't worry about this stuff, and we turned out just fine!" And then a second later I realize that, well, maybe not so fine after all. I mean, I'm healthy now and not even all the people I work with know that I'm a cancer survivor. But that all could have worked out badly for me. I could have been a statistic. So, you know...maybe erring on the side of caution isn't a bad thing. For one of the world's most beautiful women, the side of caution meant a double mastectomy. For you, it might be putting down the Marlboros or choosing SPF 30 over the Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil. (Oh my God, do you remember how that stuff smelled? I mean, in the moment before it allowed you to get pre-melanoma? At least I smelled awesome while my pigment cells were mutating.)

And, when given the choice...please don't play with the lead.

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