Writer takes pre-emptive strike against cancer time bomb

When Joelle Burnette learned she was likely to develop breast cancer, it took her a matter of weeks to make a huge decision. The journalist was 42 when she tested positive for the BRCA genetic mutation — a hereditary pre-indicator of cancer that Ashkenazi Jews are more likely to have than any other ethnic group — and her primary concern was staying alive for her two young children.

“I just said ‘Take it all, take my breasts and ovaries and fallopian tubes,’ ” remembers Burnette, four years later. The reality of cancer was made all the more stark by her sister’s ongoing battle with the disease; her grandmother and aunt had both died from it years before.

“I had my husband, I had my kids. I thought ‘It’s just skin, just tissue,’ ” says Burnette, who was born in San Francisco, grew up in Ross and now resides in Rohnert Park.

Joelle Burnette after reconstructive surgery in May 2009

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the process of having a salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes), a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery turned out to be more of an ordeal than she had expected. Over the course of the process, frustrated by the dearth of information for people in her situation, Burnette decided that her experience could be meaningful if she used it to help others.

While disease, surgery and lengthy recovery times don’t generally make for lively reading, “Cancer Time Bomb,” Burnette’s first-person account of her three-year journey, is anything but depressing.

Beyond the doctor visits and technical medical terminology, the book offers an intimate, messy and at times hilarious family portrait: It explores the strength of Burnette’s relationship with her husband, Mark, and how the medical process affects their son and daughter. Burnette’s mother, father and sister Michelle all play leading roles, as well: Her father and sister are battling formidable health demons of their own (a recurrence of Michelle’s cancer is part of what convinced Burnette to take the genetic test in the first place), while her mom is an emotional rock for the entire clan to lean on.

Throughout the narrative, Burnette’s language is casual, punchy and free with four-letter words, like a friend confiding her troubles over drinks.

“I didn’t want it to be this all-serious thing,” explains the author, who has a master’s degree in journalism and communications from Stanford. She wrote for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat until February of this year, and previously worked in television news.

“I didn’t have cancer, so I’m not a cancer survivor, I didn’t have that idea of death looming over my head,” she says. “And yet from the moment I was tested until after I had my surgeries, it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up.

“I thought about it all day. That’s where the ‘time bomb’ [in the title] came from — it would have just been waiting, worrying about this for the rest of my life.”

Burnette started blogging about her day-to-day experiences with the surgeries and reconstruction process, at www.joeysjournal.

com. “I decided right from the beginning I would just be honest about everything, because it couldn’t help anybody else if I wasn’t,” she relates.

So she included the details: the small triumphs of days when she could begin to move by herself, the hectic day of her son’s bar mitzvah (the family belongs to Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa). During the ceremony, Burnette found herself telling her son that, though she had been more of a cultural Jew than a spiritual Jew for most of her life, the process of going through her surgery and recovery had made her realize her synagogue — and the Jewish community at large — were truly there for her when she needed them.

Before she knew it, she had followers: readers, mostly women, who wrote from all over the world to thank her for the information she’d shared in her blog, and to ask questions about their own experiences. One woman whose job required intense physical activity changed her mind about getting the TRAM Flap reconstruction procedure (the kind Burnette had opted for, with its lengthy recovery process) after the two spoke on the phone.

The author says she’s overjoyed her experiences might help others. But she waves off accolades.

“A lot of people have said I was brave [for having the pre-emptive surgery], but I didn’t feel brave. I just knew it had to be done,” she says earnestly.

“I can think of it as a mitzvah if it inspires other people to get tested, if it helps other people get through it. For women who are facing this, who have that family history … hopefully they can look at this book and feel less alone.”


“Cancer Time Bomb: How the BRCA Gene Stole My Tits and Eggs” by Joelle Burnette (CreateSpace, 290 pages, $14.99)

Joelle Burnette will read from her book at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 19 at Dayenu Judaica, 3200 California St., San Francisco; 1:30 p.m. July 22 at Copperfield’s Books, Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa; and 1 p.m. Aug. 3 at Copperfield’s Books, 104 Matheson St., Healdsburg. www.joeysjournal.com

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.