Author Takes Steps To Fight Cancer, Become Mom

A year ago Morning Edition told you about Jessica Queller, a 39-year-old woman who had her breasts removed because she carries the breast cancer gene. The gene also carries a high risk for ovarian cancer, and the only certain prevention is to have the ovaries removed. When Queller shared her story, she hadn't had that procedure yet because she wanted to be a mother. Queller updates Renee Montagne on what's been happening in her life.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Many of you responded warmly to a story we brought you last year, the story of a woman who took drastic steps to change her genetic fate. Jessica Queller is a writer. She's written for hit TV shows, including "Gossip Girl." But she'd written about something far more personal: the double-mastectomy she'd chosen to have after discovering she covered the gene for breast cancer.

That gene mutation sentenced her to a near 90-percent chance of getting breast cancer and more than a 50-percent chance of developing ovarian cancer. It was a gene that had been passed down from her mother.

Ms. JESSICA QUELLER (Writer): My mother was a beautiful, glamorous fashion designer, and she was absolutely sideswiped by breast cancer at age 52. She had very intensive chemotherapy treatment, lost her hair, was very ill, but she beat the cancer. Six years later, she was struck again by a second primary cancer, ovarian cancer. And this time, she was not so lucky.

MONTAGNE: In her memoir "Pretty is What Changes," Jessica Queller chronicled bother her mother's illness and painful death and her own choice to have a double mastectomy. When we spoke to her, she had not yet had her ovaries removed, the only way to guarantee that she won't get ovarian cancer. That's because she wanted to have a baby and made the decision to try and have one on her own.

Jessica Queller came back to our studios here at NPR West, and she's joining us to talk about that decision. Good morning.

Ms. QUELLER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And I should say congratulations, because you are, indeed, pregnant.

Ms. QUELLER: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: You're about four months along, just about.

Ms. QUELLER: Just over four months, four-and-a-half months.

MONTAGNE: The way you got pregnant, it's artificial insemination from an anonymous donor.

Ms. QUELLER: Yes.

MONTAGNE: What was that like for you to pick the father, but, of course, not know the father at all and not plan to, really?

Ms. QUELLER: Very strange, brave new world. You are provided with so much information on the one hand, three generations of medical records, essays. You hear a voice interview, a baby picture. The only thing they don't provide you with is an adult photograph, which is sort of disconcerting because as much as they describe him, you don't get that visual sense of who the father is.

MONTAGNE: Have you lost any sleep about bringing a child into the world without, certainly, that child's biological father, but possibly without a father to help raise the child?

Ms. QUELLER: You know, I really haven't. I live between New York and Los Angeles, so it's pretty much as cosmopolitan as it gets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. QUELLER: In the circles I run in, I know many single mothers by choice, and I know - I have so many gay friends who have had children using the same cryobank I did. So perhaps I'm sheltered, in a way.

It's funny. I'm a Hollywood writer, you know, and I thought about writing a feature film about my travails of having a child by myself. And it turned out, I found out, there's not one, but two competing sperm-donor-romantic comedies in production right now, so I think it's not really as marginalized as one might think.

MONTAGNE: In writing your book, and even in speaking to us in this interview, you've become the public face of a disease, or a potential disease - that would be breast cancer and also ovarian cancer - and been very public about some very personal things.

Ms. QUELLER: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: (unintelligible), you know. So how's that affected you?

Ms. QUELLER: There are pros and cons. I mean, the positive aspect is I know I am helping many women, and I receive letters every day via Facebook, especially, from strangers who've read the book and share the most intimate experiences of their lives with me, and it's just so deeply gratifying and meaningful.

On the other hand, it's a little bit embarrassing if a stranger Googles me and reads 20 pages on mastectomy girl. You know, breast cancer. It's startling, and it brands me in a certain way that certainly is not reflective of my life as a whole. So it's an odd mix.

MONTAGNE: But clearly, one you're willing to embrace.

Ms. QUELLER: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: One thing about your intention and desire to have a biological child, because there are obviously other options, carrying the breast cancer gene means that you can pass that on to this child, which must be a concern.

Ms. QUELLER: Well, when you asked me if I stayed up at night worrying about having a baby without a father, I don't worry about that. I do worry about passing the gene on to my child. So yes, that is something that weighs heavily on me.

That said, I'm very close with my doctors, and my oncologist in New York has assured me that advances are being made in cancer prevention on a scientific level. And she feels extremely confident that 30 years from now, when my potential daughter would have to face the burden of this issue, the landscape will be entirely different and she'll have many different options from the options I had.

MONTAGNE: Do you know if it's a girl or a boy?

Ms. QUELLER: It is a girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. QUELLER: It is a girl. I just found out.

MONTAGNE: Oh. Would you encourage your daughter to be tested to know whether she had this genetic mutation that puts her right in line for breast and ovarian cancer?

Ms. QUELLER: Yes, I absolutely would encourage her to be tested, but certainly not before the age of 20 or 25. I'm sure as she grows up, she'll be well aware of my role in this topic. My friend's daughter is six years old, and she knows how to Google. So I don't think that there'll be any chance that my daughter won't be educated on this subject by the time she's in junior high school. I believe knowledge is power, so I would raise my child wanting to seek information at the appropriate time.

MONTAGNE: What would your mother think about all of this?

Ms. QUELLER: She knew how desperately I've always wanted children, so I know she's looking over me, and I think of her every day and I think she would just be absolutely thrilled that I'm having a daughter.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. QUELLER: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Jessica Queller is author of the memoir, "Pretty is What Changes." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Green.

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