By: Kate Padberg
I am a previvor. Previvor is a term used to describe a person with a genetic predisposition to cancer that monitors and, in my case, alters their body to prevent cancer from occurring. Cancer runs in my family as a result of a genetic mutation called BRCA1. Almost every person in my family has had cancer. It has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. While my one year old brother was undergoing surgery and treatment of testicular cancer, I was living with my grandmother who I would watch die of ovarian cancer a week before my nineteenth birthday. I returned from my honeymoon to stay with my father for weeks in the hospital due to complications from prostate cancer surgery. A year before I found the courage to get genetic testing myself, I would bury my grandfather from recurrence of the disease. I was terrified to know the truth, but the need to know finally outweighed the fear after the birth of my own children. I advocated for genetic testing and in January of 2019 found out that life-long fear was real. I am BRCA 1 positive. BRCA stands for the breast cancer gene and particularly increases a person’s chances of getting breast and ovarian cancer. I have a 50-80% chance of developing breast cancer and 40-60% chance of developing ovarian cancer in my lifetime. To prevent cancer, I had a complete hysterectomy followed by a double mastectomy with implants in June of 2019. When the pathology from both surgeries came back clear I felt a profound sense of gratitude. It felt as if a weight had been lifted off of me. Something that surprised me in my recovery is that I didn’t know I had been carrying around such a burden of worry with me everyday, for years. Now I try to live my life the best I can with continued education and advocacy of preventative health care to show my children and others that life with a BRCA1 mutation can be full of happiness and gratitude.
To begin to comprehend my genetic mutation and the implications it causes, I wanted to understand what was happening in my body in scientific terms, on a cellular and molecular level. I began to ask questions like I wonder what color DNA is? What does the very point where my mutation occurs on chromosome seventeen look like? Can my personal DNA sequence be repeated like a fingerprint copied and stamped over and over? Which led me to wondering, when DNA in a cell breaks down to the point it cannot be repaired, or in my case with a BRCA1 stop deletion, where the code just stops instead of continuing to be built, how does the very first cancer cell appear? What does that look like? What color are cancer cells? What does gene sequencing look like? What if we could visualize the human genome project? What does the genetic map of the human race look like?
What has come out of my research and exploration of genetics is an expression of the gratitude I feel as a previvor. My current body of work is a series of exuberant batiks. The works are bright and bold. The line work is confident and expressive. Each piece is made by playing with the wax and dye creating patterns using a representation of the double helix of DNA, chromosomes, genetic sequencing, and/ or cancer cells. I use bright colors layering from lightest to darkest to create patterns representing my genetic mutation BRCA1, DNA, chromosomes, and cancer cells. Depicting these microscopic mechanisms on a large scale with intense color saturation invites the viewer to consider what lies within, what we are predisposed to. When it comes down to it, DNA is just a complex series of patterns. As a result of mapping the human genome, we know everyone has mutations in our genetic code. How those slight variations in the pattern can drastically change a person’s life both physically and emotionally are shown here. These works are a testament to my physical transformation that lead to a surprisingly positive emotional transformation as well.
They are a celebration that I am a previvor. That genetic testing unlocked the mystery of my family’s cancer history and empowered me to dramatically alter my fate with cancer. Ultimately, through this short and intense journey I have found faith in the fact that whatever may come, I can survive it. For now, I hope these works inspire people to talk to their family members and doctors about genetic testing and preventative health care options. I am fortunate to be a previvor and not a survivor. The difference between those terms is what gives me hope to continue to create and inspire others.