Before surgery

Doctor Beth Karlan (left) says, "Your dad is with us, from above," to Anna Gorman in the pre-op before her hysterectomy/ oophorectomy. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / November 1, 2006)

After that appointment, it also started to sink in that I was about to hit menopause -- at age 32. This surgery would affect my body, and my mind, in ways I might not know for years.

But as the date of the operation got closer, I started worrying more about my daughters than myself. How would I explain to Sadie why I was going away? Would Twyla, who was underweight and still nursing, take a bottle while I was gone?

I went online to check the message board of an organization called FORCE, Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, for women with BRCA mutations. Several Los Angeles women -- cancer survivors, cancer sufferers and people like me, struggling not to get cancer -- were getting together for dinner a few weeks before my surgery.

"I am getting anxious," I wrote. "I would love to come and meet you all. Is it OK to show up?"

Another new mother welcomed me warmly. She'd had a preventive mastectomy when her sons were 21 months and 5 months -- and a preventive hysterectomy five months later. On the phone a few days later, she explained that both surgeries were for her boys. When she dropped them off at preschool, she said, she wanted to be able to say -- with conviction -- "Mommy always comes back."

I arrived at the dinner at a Westwood restaurant carrying Twyla, just 2 months old. Across from me sat a 36-year-old, who hadn't had cancer but had had both her ovaries and her breasts removed to be safe. "They are just body parts," she told me, pulling out photographs of what was really important to her: her school-age daughters.

I was still getting used to the idea of losing my ovaries. I had always viewed a preventive mastectomy as a drastic measure. It seemed I risked losing nearly everything -- at least physically -- that defined me as a woman. Yet these women seemed not to regret their choices.

Indeed, a few of them went into the bathroom to show one another their reconstructed breasts. They asked me along. Without much ado, each lifted her shirt and explained what kind of surgeries she had undergone. I was surprised at their openness -- and that the breasts looked so normal.

I left the dinner feeling inspired. I realized why I was doing this surgery. I was doing it for my father. I was doing it for myself.

Most of all, I was doing it for my daughters.

THE night before surgery was Halloween, a welcome distraction.

Sadie was a bumblebee. I took her trick-or-treating, then returned to the house filled with nervous energy. I packed my bag, washed dishes and gave my mom instructions on the girls' napping and eating habits. She and my sister both had come to care for them. Each gave me a card thanking me for my decision.

"It can't be easy," my sister wrote, "but we are all glad and relieved you are going through with it. Dad would be too."

The next morning, Coll and I nervously flipped through magazines in the hospital lobby. I couldn't concentrate.

Dr. Karlan hugged me in pre-op. "Your dad is with us," she said, "from above."

The last thing I remember was the nurse telling me that my husband had called home. Twyla had just finished one bottle and was starting a second. I smiled.

I woke up a few hours later, with Coll by my side. Dr. Karlan walked in. The surgery went perfectly, she said. She would know for sure next week, but she was 99% sure there was no cancer.

"I made it," I said. "Two babies and no cancer."

Coll told me that he had waited next to a man whose wife -- only a few years older than I -- was having the same surgery. But she had learned of her mutation only after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She'd already gone through a mastectomy and chemotherapy. They had one child. She got cancer before they were able to have a second.

"This is really awful," Coll said, holding my hand, "but it could have been a whole lot worse."