Michelle Wilson was dealt an unexpected hand: Her father had breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk for men is one in 1,000. In 2006, Michelle’s father reached for his seatbelt and felt an excruciating pain through his arm and left breast. At 52, he was diagnosed with stage 3C breast cancer. Thirty-six of his lymph nodes were removed, and 32 of those came back positive for breast cancer.
Although her father was adamant that she get tested for the BRCA mutation, Michelle waited until after giving birth to a healthy daughter at the age of 37. She tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation and decided to take preventive measures. “I am the driver of the bus,” she says. “I get to decide what I’m going to do.” Next summer, at the age of 40, she will undergo a double mastectomy and a laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (in which the ovaries and the fallopian tubes are removed). “I’m in this weird spot where I don’t have cancer but I’ve decided that I’m going to have these surgeries,” she says.
Michelle has two younger sisters––one BRCA2-positive, the other negative. Her BRCA2-positive sister is waiting to see what happens with Michelle’s surgeries before deciding if it’s something she’d like to follow. “You have to weigh your options when you have family members who are just waiting and seeing what happens,” says Michelle. “And that’s hard.”
When her father was diagnosed, Michelle was working toward her undergraduate degree in photography and graphic design at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. She created a series of documentary photos centered on her father and brought them to her professor, expressing her desire to expand the project. She received a research grant that gave voice through photographs to three male survivors of breast cancer––Brandon, Dale and Rob. In her artist’s statement she explains: “The images combined with their written testimonies convey the importance of awareness and early detection as critical to long-term survival.”