Rating: 7 out of 10
Summary: Eleven months after her mother succumbs to cancer, Jessica Queller has herself tested for the BRCA “breast cancer” gene mutation. The results come back positive, putting her at a terrifyingly elevated risk of developing breast cancer before the age of fifty and ovarian cancer in her lifetime.
Thirty-four, unattached, and yearning for marriage and a family of her own, Queller faces an agonizing choice: a lifetime of vigilant screenings and a commitment to fight the disease when caught, or its radical alternative—a prophylactic double mastectomy that would effectively restore life to her, even as it would challenge her most closely held beliefs about body image, identity, and sexuality.
Commentary: This was a very inspirational, insightful, and engrossing read. Queller basically lays it all out there for the reader, giving us an agonizing and detailed look at her mother’s fight with cancer, and finally her own decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy.
What makes it so real and terrifying is that Queller is a normal, everyday woman. She has a job. She has a family. She has boyfriends and girlfriends and she goes out on dates, she lives her life like every other woman in the United States. She has human flaws–she goes through a rebellious stage against her mother, she’s vain at times, she’s (some say) overly picky about men. But that all changes when she finds out that she has an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and a 44% chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Having a double mastectomy (both breasts completely removed) is not only physically challenging (what with multiple surgeries, plus reconstruction) but also psychologically confusing. Body image, gender, and sexuality are all very delicately balanced topics, and finding a way to make these things work while trying to save your own life is extremely difficult.
Queller lets the reader into her mind with this dilemma. How is she going to have kids? How is she going to date? Have sex? Fall in love? All the little things too: When does she tell someone about her “special condition”? The first date? Before sex? After sex? What kind of reconstructive surgery to get–silicone implants, or skin/muscle grafted from other parts of her body?
Currently, cancer is no longer explicity a death sentence. The modern world has sort of shifted from “Cancer, death,” to “Cancer, now how do I live with this?” Pretty is What Changes deals with this question and does it very well.