How much would you sacrifice to survive? When filmmaker Joanna Rudnick tested positive for the BRCA gene (the “breast cancer gene”), she knew the information could save her life. She also knew that she was not only confronting mortality at an early age, but would have to make heart-wrenching decisions about the life that lay ahead of her. Should she take the irreversible preventive step of having her breasts and ovaries removed, or risk developing cancer? What would happen to her romantic life, her hopes for a family? In the Family documents Joanna’s efforts to reach out to other women while facing her deepest fears.
In the Family airs on most PBS stations on Wednesday, October 1 at 10 PM. (Schedules vary, so check your local listings.)
One of the women Joanna meets is Linda Pedraza of Boston, who was ten when her mom died of ovarian cancer. Linda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 42, and she tested positive for BRCA. In the film, Linda is undergoing another round of treatment for metastatic breast cancer. She tells Joanna, “In spite of how awful it is to feel less than female, being alive is what matters. In retrospect… I would have had all those surgeries. It may not be the ideal life that you want, but it’s life.”
Poet Martha Haley of Chicago is a three-time breast cancer survivor and founder of Celebrating Life, a breast cancer support group for African-American women. She confronts head-on the fact that black women are much less likely to get genetic testing for BRCA, not only because of disparities in wealth and health care, but also because of the distrust many African Americans feel toward the medical establishment. Martha speaks out, urging women to get tested. “When you get diagnosed with breast cancer and you are part of a poverty-stricken community, it can be like, ‘Why should I even bother?’ I want to address that,” she says.
Joanna herself is struggling with her relationship with her boyfriend Jimmy and trying to navigate how the mutation affects her life, her future and her health. How long can she wait before taking action? At the same time, Joanna visits Myriad Genetics, who own the patent for the BRCA gene, to try to understand how a corporation can patent a gene.
What thoughts and feelings did you have when you were watching In the Family? What are the benefits and drawbacks of knowing that you have a gene mutation that can cause disease? If you were Joanna’s friend or sister, what would you want her to do and why? Should policies be developed to govern the genetic testing industry? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.