There are many definitions for the word family. Some of my favorites include “a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation” and “a group of things related by common characteristics.” But when you really think about it, family is whatever you define it to be.
With that said, my cousin Brie may have been adopted but that doesn’t change anything. She’s still the same cousin who’s the same age as my older sister. The same cousin I wanted to play Babysitter’s Club with because I thought she and my sister were just so cool. And, Brie is the same cousin who made an incredibly difficult decision that I respect and admire.
Let’s start at the very beginning (I have The Sound of Music tunes stuck in my head…but I digress). We always knew Brie and her sister, Cortney, were adopted. Michael is our only biological cousin from this branch of the family tree. I have fond memories of getting together every Thanksgiving and Christmas when we were kids. We played games like Pictionary and acted out little skits with Uncle Bill (their grandfather). They were some of the best holidays I can remember from my childhood. However, when my parents divorced we slowly lost touch. My holidays were divided between my mom and dad. My dad decided to spend holidays at home, alone, while my mom brought us over to her side of the family.
Years later, I reconnected with all of my cousins on Facebook. At the time, Cortney was the only one still living in Illinois, while Brie had moved to Missouri and Michael lived out East. I chatted with each of them either through our timelines (which used to be called the “Facebook Wall”) or private messages.
One day, I purchased an Ello water bottle from Target (proceeds benefit Bright Pink) and excitedly posted about it on Facebook. Brie messaged me to tell me how she discovered Bright Pink and my jaw hit the floor. She explained how she searched for her birth mother and found out she was BRCA+, meaning she had an increased risk of developing breast cancer (up to an 85 percent chance) and ovarian cancer (up to a 50 percent chance). She then shared that she chose to have a risk-reducing preventative mastectomy. “I am so glad to hear your support of them,” she said. “It makes my heart happy!”
Brie also mentioned that she moved back home to Illinois. At that moment, I knew Brie had to meet Lindsay Avner, founder/CEO of Bright Pink. Having met Lindsay when I started at TCW, and knowing how incredibly caring and supportive she is, I knew she’d want to meet Brie and hear her story. So we all planned to meet for lunch one Saturday, and the day was truly incredible.
Until Brie came over that Saturday morning, we never once talked about her adoption. I’d always been curious, but I was very young when we spent any significant amount of time together. And by the time I was mature enough to understand and discuss it, we hadn’t spoken in years. She explained that her biological mother was a 20-year-old college student who lived in the South when she found out she was pregnant. That summer, she decided to stay with her sister in Chicago…where she carried out the rest of the pregnancy. No one else in the family knew about the pregnancy, and they still don’t to this day.
Knowing her adoptive parents lived in the same suburb of Illinois (where she grew up) for years, Brie contacted the local adoption agency at Catholic Charities. After a little back and forth, she was able to connect with her birth mom through letters sent to Catholic Charities.”It was very difficult, because she had not prepared for me at all,” admitted Brie, who continued saying that the only other person her birth mom told was her husband (most likely because she was born via C-section).
Brie and her birth mom wrote letters for years, and she eventually learned that her birth mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor (first diagnosed at 37), her biological grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32, her great-grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s and another relative was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s and passed.
Brie took this new information to her gynecologist who referred her to a genetic counselor. She was the first one in the lineage to test for the BRCA gene. “I don’t know if I was prepared for the positive result,” she recalled. “I knew what it would mean, but emotionally I don’t think I was prepared for the burden of what that meant.” It took Brie a little while to process the result, and she said it almost felt like a cancer diagnosis.
Brie started getting regular mammograms and MRIs (women who have denser breasts should also get MRIs, as mammography may not be as reliable). She eventually decided, at 35, to get a risk-reducing mastectomy. Before she moved forward with the surgery, she researched for support groups on the Internet and found Bright Pink. She signed up for a Bright Pink Pink Pal, who gave her all the confidence in the world and helped her make a decision that not only significantly reduces her risk for breast and ovarian cancer but also potentially saves her life.
The connection Brie and Lindsay had at lunch was truly magnetic. With everything they’ve been through, they have an unspoken bond I could never understand. I’m incredibly happy they were able to meet. In the end, Brie is healthy, active (an avid runner!) and loving life. She’s not living in fear, and she’s enjoying every moment with her husband, Mark, and their two children. She is truly inspiring, and I couldn’t be more proud to call her family.