Diem Brown's Biggest Fear: Passing the 'Cancer Gene' to Her Kids

  • Diem Brown
    Courtesy Diem Brown
  • Diem Brown
    Courtesy Diem Brown

08/30/2012 AT 12:40 PM EDT

In her PEOPLE.com blog, Diem Brown, the Real World/Road Rules Challenge contestant recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the second time, opens up about her desire for a child and the ups and downs of cancer and fertility procedures

It's amazing how paying it forward works.

As I left Dr. Grifo's office I felt enriched, informed and as though I had a sense of control brought back into my life.

Dr. Grifo, my fertility doc, had spent 45 minutes after his office hours to help educate me on simple ways to combat menopause side-effects, as well as to answer some questions I had about my lil frozen egglettes and my general health. What's great about having a doctor so focused on his patients is that he wants to help empower you in every way.



He sat behind his desk, spoke softly, and comforted me as he talked about how a birth control pill would be the easiest way to trick my body into believing my ovaries were still there and thus minimize the effects of menopause.

"A birth control pill? That's it?"

I had watched so many Suzanne Somers videos dealing with menopause and thought my new post-ovary removal life would require taking forty pills a day and rubbing hormone lotions on each arm. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a single birth control pill would give me the same results as taking a cocktail of pills and lotions. I felt at ease and less stressed out. Of course I could handle remembering a birth control regimen ... that's a cakewalk!

The Big Question

I then asked the question I had feared in my mind from the very second I found out I had cancer the first time: "Will my eggs carry the disease and will my future kids get cancer?" I braced myself for his answer.

This thought has plagued me for six years, but especially so recently while doing fertility treatments after finding out that I have cancer for a second time. Naturally the thought of "well maybe I'm not supposed to have kids" sadly crept into my tormented thought process.

I see the distress on my dad's and siblings' faces as they helplessly watch me battle cancer again. I can only imagine the pain it causes loved ones to see a family member suffer the physical and emotional pain caused by an illness.

I haven't been on the other side of that table and have only really thought of it from a patient's perspective. But now my attention has turned to my frozen eggs. Of course I wonder, "If one of those egglettes was touched by cancer, then will I pass on the cancer gene to my kids?"

I'd never been able to vocalize and admit this fear. However, sitting across from the caring Dr. Grifo, I mustered up the courage to ask that question that had tormented me for so long now.

He tilted his head towards me and sweetly reassured me that I shouldn't worry and that technology is actually becoming so advanced now, that today they can test an egg and see if it carries the Braca gene (aka the cancer gene) or if that egg is carrying other inherited diseases. He could test my 10 eggs and select the healthy ones to make embryos with.

Stunned (a good stunned) and in disbelief (a good disbelief), I stared into space to really digest what he had just told me. This concept of egg retrieval and testing eggs seems so "sci-fi" to me. Normally, I would judge this sort of "tampering," but let's face it, I'm alive and I have a hope of having kids because of the "sci-fi" technology we have today. We live in a "sci-fi" world. Think about it: eye contacts, managing asthma, chemo therapy, fertility treatments – treating these are all science-based advances and all things I've accepted as normal. So why does testing an egglette make me think or feel any different?

Then I found it the lil dark spot in the back of my mind: What if I was an egg that was tested? If this testing existed before I was born, would I have been brought into this world?

Arghh, why did you go there mind? You're missing the point! The point is that through fertility treatments and subsequent egg retrieval, we now have a way to try to prevent passing on diseases like with by filtering through "good eggs" and "bad eggs" with seemingly simple tests.

Is this a possible way of curing hereditary cancers? The knowledge just dropped on me is mind-boggling, but I left Dr. Grifo's office with a new sense of energy and full of newfound knowledge.

Paying It Forward

As I tried hailing a cab at 4pm in N.Y.C., I saw off-duty sign after off-duty sign pass by me (cabbies switch shifts between 4-5pm so it's always the hardest time hailing a cab). However, this one man pulled over with his off duty sign on and asked where I was headed. I gave him the directions with a hopeful smile and he told me to jump on in.

The cab driver had a thick accent and a sweet curious demeanor. He asked if I live in that building where he always sees women outside with bandages on their arms. I told him it's a hospital and he quickly looked back towards me, stunned: "You're a patient?" I answered yes and he replied, "What could you possibly have???"

Shocked at the candor of the cabbie but still on a high from my visit with Dr. Grifo, I answered, "I have ovarian cancer."

Suddenly his face went blank and he offered in his strong accent, "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have asked but now I'm happy I did. I'm not from this country. I'm not very educated on health, and my daughter is about your age and is very sick”

His face was so earnest and I could see the anxiety and pain in his eyes. He immediately reminded me of my dad. He continued, "She has pain all the time in her stomach and has done blood work but is still in bed in pain. Do you think she has what you have?"

Saddened by his fear, I answered him in the most comforting way I could and told him, "I'm not a doctor, but I would go back to the hospital or doctor and ask for your daughter to get an internal ultrasound because an ultrasound can reveal so much more than what blood tests can."

I could tell he was really taking in what I told him as he repeated "internal ultrasound" in his thick, sweet accent. The cab driver graciously thanked me and told me that from now on if he saw a woman waiting for a cab outside the hospital on First Avenue, that he would pick her up even if he is off-duty.

As I got out of the cab, I was really touched by the cabbie's offer to pay it forward. He was offering the resources he had to help make someone else's day a little easier. I realized it all started with Dr. Grifo being so generous with his time while speaking to me and comforting my fears. If I was in a bad mood maybe I wouldn't have been so talkative with the inquisitive cab driver. Maybe I would have been offended by one of his innocent remarks. But I think it all goes to show how one kind gesture to can start a ripple effect far beyond just one person’s reach.

For me, Dr. Grifo calmed my fears by letting me know eggs can be tested for cancer genes. For the cab driver, he can go to his daughter's doctor with knowledge of a test that might pinpoint the reason for his daughter's pain.

This all might sound silly to some but it got my mind going and has made me more aware of the importance of demeanor and attitude. My mom instilled a positive attitude in me as a child and that's something I've carried with me ever since, without ever questioning it. I'm now beginning to realize exactly why staying positive and wanting to be helpful towards others are such powerful inherent tools.

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