"Would you surrender your ability to give life if you knew it might save your own?"
The mapping of the human genome has truly unlocked the secrets of our physical existence. But is our ability to peer into our genetic past and future a miraculous gift or a terrible curse? A genetic test has told 27-year-old filmmaker, Joanna Rudnick, that she has "tested positive for a deleterious mutation," or in raw terms, that she will most likely develop breast (85-95% chance) and ovarian (50-60% chance) cancer. Now she must decide if she will take the pre-emptive step of having her breasts and ovaries removed. Even more troubling is the strong possibility that she will pass on this mutation to any children she may choose to have.
As she struggles with these issues, Rudnick crosses the country to understand other women's approaches to the genetic test and the disconcerting results. Along the way, we meet the researcher who discovered the existence of the mutation as well as the head of the company who holds the patent to the $3,000 test, making it cost prohibitive for many women. We watch as Rudnick confronts him about the cost. He claims not to know why. "We’ll have to look into that," he says.
Rudnick is brave enough to wonder if women should know that they carry the mutation. As Rudnick said in an enlightening panel discussion afterwards, "Knowing tells you you're not in hell, but you're not in heaven, either. You're in a kind of purgatory." A woman named Linda who carries the mutation tells Rudnick in the film, "Being alive is what matters. It's not the life you want, but it is life." Sadly, Linda dies from breast and ovarian cancer that spread to her brain during the four-year filming. Linda's 16-year-old daughter is undecided about whether or not to have the test. Rudnick, now 32 years old, remains undecided about surgery.
What would you do if faced with such heartbreaking choices? The PBS "POV" series plans to air, "In the Family," on October 1. Check your local television viewing schedules and watch it. For more information about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, visit www.facingourrisk.org.