To Infinity and Beyond: My Journey

Cells signifying Sara Winokur's cancer journey

Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I won’t say it was a blessing in disguise because at the time, it turned my world upside down. The day the diagnosis was confirmed, my daughter was due to start college and had to fly across the country to begin her own journey. That must have been extremely tough on her. At home, family and friends rallied round. My older son held my hand. My younger son shaved his head in solidarity. My husband was a rock; as an ER physician on duty, he was the first to see the scan but never let on just how frightened he was.

But as with many things in life, good can rise from bad. In fact, I never would have re-invented myself as an author if cancer hadn’t blind-sighted me. I had written many scientific articles, but never a work of fiction. The first year after stepping back from the lab (I’ve since returned part-time), I focused on my health and recovery. The second year, I enjoyed the freedom of not working for the first time in my life. The third . . . well, the third year, I began to get a bit bored.

That was the year I dug deep and asked the question: What the hell do I do with the rest of my life? I could have gone back to the lab full-time but was invigorated by the freedom my diagnosis had given me. A new challenge lay ahead: I would write a novel. Not wanting to leave science behind, I decided to incorporated genetics into the plot in an accessible and engaging way. Genetics led me to Iceland, a country that is at the forefront in establishing DNA databases to decipher human disease. Once in Iceland, I fell in love with the country, its culture, food, and people. Weaving the country’s literary heritage and culture into the often controversial aspects of genetic databases, I felt a mystery brewing. Thus was born Double Blind: The Icelandic Manuscript Murders.

Today, I am cancer-free and grateful for each and every day. I do not have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer. I tested negative for the hereditary BRCA1/2 gene mutations but have a note of caution for others. Several commercial, ‘at-home’ DNA testing services purport to analyze the risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer by examining the BRCA1/2 gene. However, at least one of these companies analyzes just three of the most common mutations even though 1,000 mutations have been reported in these genes. It’s like spell checking three pages in a 1,000-page book. So, please. Don’t rely solely on these at-home kits! Someone who comes from a family of women with breast or ovarian cancer but tests negative for the mutations should not rely on these results alone. A more extensive test that sequences the entire gene is available for women with a family history of the disease.

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Sara Winokur

Sara Winokur

SARA WINOKUR is a Ph.D. molecular geneticist whose research has been published in many scientific journals, including Human Molecular Genetics, Nature Genetics, and Cell/Stem Cell. As an ovarian cancer thriver, Sara has dedicated her life to family, friends, and her second career as an author of historical fiction and forensic mysteries. When not wandering the globe, Sara lives with her family and writes in Southern California. Double Blind: The Icelandic Manuscript Murders is her debut novel.

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