Out of the Mouths of Babes

Here is a conversation I had with one of my students yesterday: 

(Necessary background information: she left early last week — visibly shaken and upset — because she went to go with her cousin who, at 25, was getting the results back from her breast biopsy.  My student’s aunt, her cousin’s mother, had died at 35 from breast cancer.)  

Me: “How is everything with your family?  Did your cousin get her test results back?” 

Student: “Yeah, yeah, she did.  She has stage IV breast cancer that has metastasized to her spine and lymph nodes.”

Me:  “Fuck.  Oh, I am so sorry.  How is she coping with the diagnosis?” 

Student: “Well, she and her sister were both being screened every 6 months for breast cancer, and this was a lump she found on her own between mammograms.  She always knew this might be a reality, but she did not expect it at 25.”

Me:  “I don’t think anyone expects it at 25.” 

Then I proceed to tell her about one of my high-school friends whose mom lived for 7+ years with stage IV breast cancer.  We talked about chemo, radiation, etc… , and how medicines that can save your life can have very unpleasant side effects.  I told her my friend, who was only three years older than I at 35, was thinking of having children, but she was not sure if she wanted to potentially pass the cancer gene that had killed both her mother and grandmother on to a daughter.  If she adopts instead, she is seriously considering having a radical mastectomy, just to abate the risk.

Student: “Wow, that is really bad.”

Me: “Having a mastectomy before even having a cancer diagnosis?  Well, I think it will give her peace of mind and she is planning to have reconstructive surgery.  It must be so hard to even have to think like that.” 

Student: “No, I meant having a baby after 35.  They are usually born with Down Syndrome.  It’s just not a smart thing to do.”   

I thought of launching into a complex explanation of the hows and whys of chromosomal abnormalities, how these relate to the age of the mother, etc … , but I was just too tired, and, frankly, I just did not want to lecture this poor kid. 

I am sure when you are in your early twenties, thirty-five seems very, very far away.       



July 6, 2007. Ramblings.


  1. kona replied:

    1. “Never attribute to malice, that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

    2. The risk of having a baby with down syndrome is 1 in 400 at age 35 and progresses to 1 in 100 at age 40.

    Source: http://www.marchofdimes.com/pnhec/4439_1214.asp

    3.The student’s comment unfairly presupposes that no one would want a child with down syndrome.

    4. See number 1.

    Thanks for the oh so amusing story! I am sorry to hear about the cousin’s poor prognosis and your friend’s high risk history.


  2. missedconceptions replied:


    Yes, I could tell she didn’t mean in maliciously, but it still made me wonder. This number is drilled into our heads by society and while I certainly understand that a young mother has a lower risk than an “older” mother, it is not like your ovaries magically expire the day of your 35th birthday. Our society is bombarded with news about celebrities having babies well into their late 30s and 40s, so it is a strange juxtaposition against the widely-held belief that 35+ is “too old” to have a baby.

    Maybe she also had 35 on the brain because that is the age her aunt died?


  3. kona replied:

    Yes, I see what you mean. What struck me about her comment was that amid all the loss and stress of high risk for breast CA of your friend, that she zoomed in on the age 35 and Down Syndrome piece. I wouldn’t bother lecturing her either.She is in too much pain, I’m sure, with her cousin’s new diagnosis.I’m sure 35 seems realllllly old to her right now.(Sorry for the dripping sarcasm, as I am a geriatric 36 year old). 😉 It seems kind of a waste to me that physiologically, things are easier in general in the reproductive dept in our 20s. Because, truthfully, I would not have been a great mom at 25. But, now, I think I would do a halfway decent job…it just figures that now the road to parenthood is rockier to travel.

    My heart does go out to her cousin. ;-(

  4. missedconceptions replied:

    I hear you!!!

    Biology is amazing, but not always fair. Otherwise, Britney Spears would not have two kids before some of us, especially those who would be much, much better mothers, even have one.

    AND 25 year olds would not die of breast cancer.

  5. anne replied:

    Don’t tell her the majority of babies born with Down Syndrome are born to moms under 35 (because they have the most babies, but this may change with the new screening recommendations). Moms over 35 have a higher chance of a m/c than DS. Havin had 7 m/c and a child with DS, having a child with DS isn’t the worst thing in the world.

    Biology is wonderful and frightening at times.

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