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Janine Avril

By Janine Avril

People say that knowledge is power, but it’s more complicated than that. In the not so distant future, my future mother-in-law, Ellen, will learn whether she has the BRCA mutation—the BRCA is a tumor-suppression gene, and a mutation greatly increases the chance of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Ellen, who suffered a bout of breast cancer last year and lost her own mother—a Holocaust survivor—to breast cancer, is boundlessly nervous about this information. In truth, if she had it her way, she would not have been tested for the gene at all. She is the type of person who would prefer the bliss of not-knowing. Yet, she chose to do the testing last week.

Ellen has two daughters, my future sister-in-law Amy and my partner Heidi. The possibility of BRCA has power over them in different ways. If Amy, a mother of three young children, learns she has BRCA, she would go to the extreme. She has already said so. She would preserve herself by removing any potentially affected body parts. Heidi, several years younger, has a different philosophy. She wants to have children eventually and holds out hope of breastfeeding them. She would rather wait to test for the gene until after she has children. Modern medicine can tell us what might be in our cards, but it cannot tell us how to play our hand.

I am just a bystander at the moment. I am not officially in this family yet. I have my own theories about what people should do, but they are just theories. Is knowledge power, or is it powerlessness?

How often do you feel powerless? 

What's the relationship between power and control in your life?


Janine Avril is the author of the memoir Nightlight.