NORTH MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - A North Minneapolis mother of two knows that Angelina Jolie's decision to undergo an elective double mastectomy was not a glamorous one.
Melissa Gonzales, 40, opted to have the same procedure over a year ago, trying to outwit what she believes is her own genetic fate.
"Genetic testing or not, I knew it in my gut it was something I carried since I was a young child," said Gonzales.
Gonzales says breast cancer dates back three generations in her family. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38. Her grandmother died from the disease, and her great grandmother also battled breast cancer.
Jolie made headlines after announcing she chose to undergo prophylactic mastectomy after genetic testing revealed she was at high risk for developing breast cancer. Jolie tested positive for a rare genetic mutation known as BRCA1.
Gonzales plans to undergo genetic testing soon, but didn't want the results of the test to interfere with a decision she believed was necessary.
"Because my extensive family history with breast cancer, I didn't want to become confused in case I got a negative result. I already knew in my gut based on my mom and grandma, this was something I had to do," she said.
When Gonzales struggled to find other women going through the same process, she started a blog called "Greater than the Sum of my Parts" in hopes to pull back the curtain on the process. She asked local photographer Doug Knutson to document the emotional journey in revealing and sometimes graphic photos.
"So we are not walking through his alone, because that is what it felt like in the beginning, why is nobody talking about this? Should I be ashamed of my choice?" said Gonzales.
Gonzales has already had blog followers from around the world, but it's more popular than ever after Jolie's decision to undergo the same procedure.
"I really applaud her for coming out and talking about her decision and being an advocate to educate your options," said Gonzales.
Gonzales also warns everyday women the recovery isn't the stuff made in movies. She's struggled with complications from breast reconstruction, with the placement of her implants and the reconstruction of her nipples. The pain from multiple surgeries has also caused physical setbacks.
"I am not Angelina Jolie, and while I have amazing team of physicians and plastic surgeons, you just can't do the things you would do in a normal life. You can't lift your children. It's hard to turn the wheel of your car," said Gonzales.
Gonzales has also read some of the criticism following Jolie's decision about how some worry Jolie has set a dangerous trend, fueling an epidemic of mastectomies that may not always be medically necessary. She isn't worried the legions of women will follow the leading lady's choice.
"It's not a cool thing to do. Doctors are worried about people rushing out and getting them and I think it's kind of silly. You don't rush out and get a mastectomy. The process is not that quick," said Gonzales.
She tells women and families considering this process to educate and advocate for themselves and find a care team they feel comfortable with. A year later, Gonzales says she never has regretted her decision. The year has taught her she is truly is greater than the sum of her parts.
"In the end, I feel more beautiful than I ever have before," said Gonzales. "My risks are reduced to under 5 percent. I can tell my daughter you are not going to lose me to breast cancer. I live with a much lightened load."
Gonzales still has more reconstructive surgeries ahead. She says if she tests positive for a genetic mutation, she may consider removing her ovaries as well.
The Mayo Clinic says women who are candidates for prophylactic mastectomy have already had cancer in one breast, have a family history, a mother or relative diagnosed before age 50, positive results from genetic testing, radiation therapy before age 30, or have dense breast tissue.
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