A Conversation with Caitlin Brodnick

The author and comedian riffs on confronting a family history of cancer, and how humor helped her through.

Caitlin Brodnick

After watching too many family members die of cancer, public speaker and comedian Caitlin Brodnick tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, indicating an 87% chance she’d be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Opting for a preventative double mastectomy, she became an everywoman’s Angelina Jolie.

Dangerous Boobies: Breaking Up with My Time-Bomb Breasts goes in-depth into her experience. With a warm, funny, and approachable voice, Caitlin tells the full story, sharing what it was like to go from a size 32G—giant, for a woman barely over five feet tall!—to a 32C. Engaging and upfront, she admits hating her breasts long before her surgery, and enjoying the process of designing her new ones. While Caitlin’s primary narrative explores the BRCA gene and breast cancer, her story is one of forthright body acceptance and what it takes to be confident with, and in charge of, one’s body.

Caitlin spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright, touching on how she confronted a hereditary history of cancer and mixed in humor throughout her diagnosis and beyond, how getting sober propelled her healing, and the ways her outlook has changed as she prepares for parenthood.

Read It Forward: Can you tell us a little bit about this personal journey in your memoir?

Caitlin Brodnick: It’s a humorous medical memoir, which sounds crazy, about my journey testing positive for the BRCA1 genetic mutation, and how I dealt with it. I ultimately chose to have a preventative double mastectomy that was originally made famous by Angelina Jolie in 2013.

RIF: Yes, the Angelina surgery.

CB: That’s how I explain it to most people, otherwise no one knows what I’m talking about. While I was going through all of this, I didn’t feel there was anything to grit my teeth into. I was so anxious, so nervous. There were cancer centers and support groups, but I didn’t want to take time away from those women. I didn’t have cancer, but I had this insanely high chance of getting cancer.

When I got diagnosed with the BRCA1 genetic mutation, I felt like I had cancer. There was nothing out there that was an easier, softer way to talk about something very scary, so I just started writing. I wanted it to be easy, approachable, and a fast read. This book doesn’t feel like something to slog through. If somebody handed me a cancer article or abstract, it was too much. And I’m dyslexic, so nothing makes sense. I just wanted to write something that I needed at the time; I wanted to start the conversation. It could be for a mother who’s trying to understand how her daughter’s feeling, or your cousin who’s interested in getting tested. Reading a book isn’t having to walk into a medical center—it’s a lot easier.

RIF: Before your surgery, in what physical and emotional ways were your breasts holding you back?

CB: That was one of the big reasons I chose to get the surgery when I did. They say your risk increases as you age, and I was 25 when I was diagnosed. Doctors don’t necessarily suggest the surgery for some women until after you have kids, after you breastfeed if you want to, and once you’re in your fifties or sixties.

But I hated my boobs on my body, and I was like, “Why am I waiting until I’m 50 or 60 to feel relief and less fear, to feel more in control of my body?” With this surgery you get to build your own boobs, and that was a big selling point because mine were massive. I’m barely 5’2″, and they were 32Gs. Some women can pull them off very well, but I was always trying to contain them. Cleavage was never an option. It wasn’t sophisticated or something I enjoyed displaying, except with sex.

But if you have a reduction, that doesn’t mean the cells in your body change. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot or a little, they’re still high-risk cells. So it was like, “Why not just clean everything out and start from scratch?” That was the best part for me.

RIF: You’re a comedian, and you speak with a lot of levity. But you were battling depression and anxiety. Did humor help you, or did you withdraw from your funny self?

CB: I think every comedian I know has a deep amount of depression; it’s just part of the job. But it was hard. I was given so much love and care, and I wanted to be this positive, upbeat person, but I felt like crap. I didn’t feel strong in my body. After surgery, there’s a lot of waiting to heal and listening to your body, so I never felt in control. I felt nervous and stuck. And that’s hard when you have a lot of people you love who want to spend time with you. I felt like a burden. I rushed to get back to work very quickly, which was not a good idea. I needed more breaks, and I didn’t care about anything that I cared about before. The things I would have happily focused on, I couldn’t give the same focus.

And comedy just comes out. I was just complaining, but eventually I realized, “I guess that is kind of funny!” Being around other comedians was helpful. They ask you to do their shows or come and see them perform, and it made me leave my house. They helped me with my comedy and pulled me out the door. And I live next to a comedy club, so I had no choice. We were filming the Glamour.com documentary at the time, and I had to put on my lip gloss and be a reporter and go to work. Going to work meant sitting still in bed and talking to a camera, but otherwise I would have just been asleep.

RIF: You broadcasted your journey of getting a mastectomy in Screw You Cancer, a documentary web series for Glamour. How did it feel to literally bare it all to the world: your hopes, your fears, and your boobs?

CB: I was never comfortable in my body. I’d gone to comedy for a reason. I could be the joke, the goof, but I didn’t want roles that were sexualized. I didn’t want anyone to look at my body. So this was different. There were times when I’d go, “Oh my god, I hope I don’t look bad in the documentary.” And I’d realize, ”Shut up, it’s not about you.” I just kept thinking, “What about that girl in my position, feeling lost?”

When I was approached for Screw You Cancer, I was thinking of doing before and after testimonials of doctors’ visits to talk about what I’d experienced. I saw those from cancer patients, and everybody talked about the terrible time they had. And I was like, “I think I’m really healthy. I have a good support system. I know my surgeons are geniuses. I think it will go well.” I thought it could be helpful because that’s what I wanted: a happy ending in a very scary situation.

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I didn’t want a picture of me, head and torso, in the same shot, for anyone to get a titty shot. And they were like, “No problem.” And then, I think episode four, there it is, me and my scars. It’s not even my cute nipples. It’s just all scarred up, and I was so upset. But I realized that’s all I wanted to see when I was debating the decision—women after surgery. What do their breasts look like? What do their scars look like? How does their body shape change? Even writing this book, when I’d be stressed out, my husband reminded me: you’re not writing it for you. You’re writing it for the girl who needs it right now.

RIF: So this BRCA1 gene mutation has been passed down in your father’s family, and he lost his sister, his mother, most of his immediate family to breast cancer. Did you ever feel like your family was cursed?

CB: I was born nine months after my aunt died at 33 of breast cancer, so I came into the world very aware she’d just died. It was so shocking, so terrible. My parents were young, newly married, and then this tragedy fell. My dad’s other sister died, both parents died, so I was anxious. It totally affected me—on the playground, other kids would be arguing, and I’m like, “Guys, relax, we’re all going to die one day.” It was so creepy and miserable, and I’m a happy, perky person, but I was like, “We’re going to die of cancer.” It was very much a part of my mindset as a child. And when I got the diagnosis that said I had a higher risk, I was like, “Of course.” It was just another nail in the coffin.

RIF: Of course.

CB: It can happen in other people, but one in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish people have the gene. Hereditary cancer’s not the most popular cancer, but in certain groups, it’s the most alarming. We all have the BRCA1 and 2; it stands for breast cancer gene. It’s a tumor and protein suppressor, so it suppresses proteins from growing. And if you have a faulty version, your body isn’t as good at suppression.

RIF: They go wild.

CB: Right. All of the cells in your body have a code. Your skin cells know when to fall off, and you heal faster on your lips than your arm. All of your cells know what to do, when to live and die. But cancer cells do their own rogue thing; that’s why they’re so alarming. They could convince another cell to join their little party, or grow to other parts, go places where they shouldn’t go, and not die when they’re supposed to die. If you have the mutation, you have a harder time fighting that.

RIF: So your dad witnessing this in his family, how did he react when it was time for you to make your decision? How’s your relationship now?

CB: He wanted me to get tested immediately. He’s in the medical industry and knew it wasn’t chance, there had to be some reason. He was one of Johns Hopkins’ test patients. He found out about the gene and was so thrilled, because if there’s a reason there could be a solution. So there was a comforting science aspect. He really wanted me to get tested, and I didn’t want to get anywhere close to that. My sister tested negative for the gene mutation because my mom isn’t of Ashkenazi descent. And my family’s like, “Oh my gosh. You might not have it.” And I said, “I know I have it.” I asked to learn Hebrew for fun. I’m so Jewish; it’s so obvious.

When I got tested, my dad was devastated. If you’re positive for BRCA1 or 2, you get to go to the head of the class, medically speaking. Your folder’s red-tagged, and you can get special treatments and scans and surveillance that the average person wouldn’t. He was expecting me to do all of that, and I didn’t even want to go to the doctor. I didn’t want to be a part of it. Those years were hard for him, kind of heartbreaking. We had a solution, and I was literally running away from it.

After my surgery, I can tell he’s more peaceful. After seeing so many family members die, and having children of his own, he thought, “The one thing I can do is try and help them so they don’t go through that.” It makes him feel so much better. That’s all I want.

RIF: You were newly married when you went through this, and worried about your husband, Allen, whom you paint in the book as a saint. You were worried he’d react negatively to losing your boobs that he, of course, loved.

CB: Adored. I thought it was a bait-and-switch. We joked that I’m a swindler. I can figure out how to get the most out of everything, I’m very savvy in that way. We only had a couple of years with these huge cans, I didn’t want him to regret it. But I didn’t realize how much breast cancer and my body was such a heavy weight on our relationship. It wasn’t some silent thing; I was crying constantly. I mean, there were so many tears at brunch! I couldn’t hold it in. And he said, “I think it would be great if you really want to do it.” He wanted to make sure, like everyone who loved me, that I had really thought it through, because there’s no going back.

Everyone was like, “Are you sure?” But once I explained it to them, most people were like, “That’s amazing.” The only people who asked further questions were people who had a very different relationship with their body. That’s why I don’t think this is a surgery for everyone. I hated my boobs, so this was like a bonus. But if somebody really loves their breasts and feels like that’s a huge part of their relationship in life, it would be a totally different decision.

RIF: And his support seems vital through the whole thing.

CB: Yeah. I’ve had friends ask me what if a guy doesn’t like it or what if this or that. I was like, “Well then, you’ve got the wrong guy.” Really, screw that guy, he doesn’t deserve your boobs anyway, real or fake.

RIF: When you were diagnosed with this, it seemed like a death sentence, and you reacted by drinking.

CB: A lot. I got trashed. I was dancing, kicking people in the head, and going to hospitals. I was a fun girl until I wasn’t. And then the alcohol hit like a wave of bricks, and I’d get obliterated all of a sudden. It was a good excuse to drink. I was like, “Oh my god, let’s make tonight the best night of our lives.” Who’s not going to buy a drink for a girl who might one day die of cancer?

It was a great sob story, and I was good at being a victim. One night I ended up in the hospital, and Allen and I were married after that. He was very much a victim of my drinking, held hostage by my drinking. When I met him, I wanted to marry him immediately, so I worked on convincing him, and the convincing stories didn’t include a night at the hospital.

When I told him I thought I was an alcoholic, he thought I just did it too much. I was a young, bubbly girl, and people think of old divorced men in trench coats as alcoholics. So you can say I don’t look like a “normal” alcoholic, but it was affecting him and affecting me. He felt hopeless and stuck in this whirlwind of emotions. I think I was sober a year and a half, and I realized I’d been running from this mutation, this diagnosis. I was really good at blocking out what I was actually upset about. The other part with drinking is that I’d be hungover and upset about what I did the night before. I was never present in what was happening, or what I was doing to myself, or what challenges I was facing, because I blocked them out. And then I was dealing with the repercussions of having blocked them out. Once I started getting better, I saw this as something I should address, how it actually might make me happier and solve the problem without alcohol.

RIF: Right. So, congratulations—you’re now expecting a baby, which is so exciting! Has this changed the way you feel about genetic testing at all? Will you urge your children to get tested to see if they have the gene mutation?

CB: It’ll be a part of raising my children, there’s no doubt. I mean, my kids are going to grow up and ask, “Mom, why don’t you have nipples? Why do your boobies look different?” They’ll know. It’s all out there. With my kids, depending on what doctors say and what comes out in research, age 18 to 21 is when—if they’d want—to get tested. Where I felt like I didn’t have the mental capacity to hold off and wait for science to come up with a cure, or a different solution than surgery, it might be different for my kids. You can do genetic testing of embryos, and that’s a whole world. I have a lot of faith, and I work with a lot of brilliant scientists. If there’s a clinical trial my kids can jump into, I’m going to be on top of it.

Writing the book, I did a lot of research to try and make sure what I was writing was accurate. These were things my doctor told me in an office visit, but I wanted to see: can I show the reader a reference so it’s not just hearsay? I had a lot of scientists, really smart doctors, review my writing, and I’m so much more comfortable with that jargon. I feel more in control and armed, where five years ago I didn’t feel that at all.

RIF: When the time comes, you’ll have the information.

CB: Yeah, I’ll figure it out. I just want them to be healthy and not sugar addicts.

RIF: Have you ever for one minute regretted getting the preventative double mastectomy?

CB: I haven’t really regretted it at all. There was one moment when I first got pregnant because I’m not going to be able to breastfeed. They remove everything when you have the surgery, including your milk glands, and I said to my husband, “I’m a terrible mom. I’m not going to be able to breastfeed.” He said, “What are you talking about? You went through so much to be here for them. You went through all this to not have your kids see you get breast cancer.” That was the only time in this entire process when I had a moment of feeling bad that I couldn’t be like any other mom.

With pregnancy, there’s so much focus on breastfeeding. Every outfit is breastfeeding friendly. I didn’t realize, being pregnant, how much pressure can be put on a woman to breastfeed. Some women can’t do it, and you feel like you’re faulty already! But I researched the best baby formula, and my friend’s going to send it to me from Europe, and I’m going to set up a back-alley formula ring. So, I’m a little cuckoo still.

RIF: Well it’s to be expected, right? And in the book, Allen said he was formula-fed, and he turned out okay.

CB: And so was I. We’re fine, and that’s that pressure, being the perfect mom before you even are a mom. And then once you have kids, everyone’s going to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Everyone tells me already what I’m doing wrong. That was a funny connection; I had no idea he was formula-fed.

RIF: Congratulations on your baby and your book baby. It’s an exciting time!

CB: It’s great because I can’t obsess over one thing. When book stuff’s going on, I’m hoping people like it and hoping it gets out there. I can’t go down in a spiral of anxiety because then I have to go eat something for the baby. And then I worry about the baby, but somebody’s calling about the book. It’s perfect, because if it was one or the other, it would be such a neurotic situation. As you can see in the book, it’s all my neurosis and how I hate medical treatments, and I had a mastectomy. I’m out there, and it feels good.


Author Photo: Mindy Tucker

CAITLIN BRODNICK is a public speaker, comedian, and performer in New York City. Her stories have been featured in Glamour and on the MOTH podcast. As a breast cancer awareness advocate, she works closely with Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, helping to connect with other women who are BRCA positive. 

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.