"Blood Matters" review

1 minute read

The NY Times is running a review by Jennifer Senior of the new book, Blood Matters, by Masha Gessen. The book details Gessen's journey through modern-day genetics and medicine. She learns that she carries a mutation to the BRCA1 gene conferring a very high breast cancer risk, and is then faced with figuring out what to do about it.

Gessen suddenly became part of "a cancer caste" (her term), a "previvor" (the community's term) with terrible choices to make posthaste. Specifically, she had to decide whether to keep her breasts and ovaries or have them prophylactically removed....So Gessen ditches the counselors and the doctors and instead tries to collect information from a wider, more eccentric variety of sources. A sympathetic nurse scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute concedes that close surveillance might be a reasonable alternative to surgery for some women. Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of "Survival of the Prettiest," a study of the evolutionary importance of beauty, points out that while breasts are central to female attractiveness, attractiveness and happiness are barely correlated. Most memorably, an instructor in a psychology and economics class at Harvard attempts to "express life in numbers" for Gessen on an Excel spreadsheet, assigning values to living with cancer, living without cancer and living with the stench of a cancer threat. Though she rejects some of his findings -- I will not say what Gessen ultimately chooses to do -- she leaves his office feeling light, unburdened: "I jumped on my bicycle and sped home, making currents in the puddles, getting soaked, feeling strong and a little silly and generally like my life had a utility of 100 a year, possibly even more, now that I also felt that much more competent for being able to put a number on the value of riding in the rain."

I'm looking forward to reading this book.