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Pandora's DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  158 ratings  ·  30 reviews
2015 ALA Notable Book

Would you cut out your healthy breasts and ovaries if you thought it might save your life? That’s not a theoretical question for journalist Lizzie Stark’s relatives, who grapple with the horrific legacy of cancer built into the family DNA, a BRCA mutation that has robbed most of her female relatives of breasts, ovaries, peace of mind, or life itself.
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published October 2014 by Chicago Review Press
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Susan I know this is an old question, but I think it would be a good gift. I found it very interesting. I'm BRCA1+, I've had prophylactic surgery, and lost …moreI know this is an old question, but I think it would be a good gift. I found it very interesting. I'm BRCA1+, I've had prophylactic surgery, and lost my mother, grandmother, and cousin to breast cancer. It did bring back memories, but not necessarily bad ones. It was more that I found myself nodding at certain passages.(less)

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 ·  158 ratings  ·  30 reviews

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Jennifer Campaniolo
Oct 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
(This is from an article I posted on

There is a particular story in Lizzie Stark’s powerful new book Pandora’s DNA that would have been a fitting scene in one of the marathon of horror movies I watched on Halloween this past Friday night. I’m not going to share the details of the story because I believe that every woman (and every man who cares about women) should read this book. You’ll know the story I’m referring to when you read it. Just be glad that you live in an age of gen
Lana Higbee
Mar 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I don't have any known high-risk BRACA mutations. But if I did, I would be faced with the same kinds of terrifying decisions as Stark had. ...more
Lizzie Stark is a first generation BRCA patient who has taken advantage of the ability to undertake genetic testing for the hereditary BRCA mutations that put some families at significantly greater risk than others of breast and ovarian cancer diagnosis. Pandora's DNA covers her family's medical history and her admittedly privileged personal decision-making process which nevertheless involves loss and trade-offs. It also addresses how much, and in some respects how little, has been achieved in t ...more
Jun 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed, nonfiction
Originally posted at: A Girl that Likes Books

I asked and received this book through NetGalley for free. This review is not sponsored nor influenced in anyway. The book is expected to published on October 15.

First impressions

I wanted to read this book mostly because a couple of years ago my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and so I wanted to have more information about. This book reminded me of what I was expecting to get when I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, except that in this
Margaret Sankey
Jun 17, 2014 rated it liked it
Having electively gotten rid of some misbehaving parts myself (and dealt with doctors who have smugly set ideas about what is "natural" and endurable), this cuts pretty close to the bone. Stark comes from a family devastated for four generations by breast and uterine cancer, later linked to the BRCA1 gene. She describes the scientific side of this, from brutal early cancer treatments to the work done by Mary Claire King, and the hard-fought right of women to be told real diagnoses and not be kno ...more
Feb 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
One woman’s face-off with her genetic fate

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Richard Rossi
Oct 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Interesting but not very exciting for me. Women have a lot to gain from testing for this mutation. The author has it and lays out the consequences clearly. A woman who tests positive for the mutation faces really tough choices. Probably not worth a man's time to read unless he has a loved one who tests positive. ...more
Charlotte Hagy
Apr 07, 2021 rated it really liked it
Really good book. One of the best and most readable medically accurate books that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it. Did not feel the author needed to apologize for privilege she had at the end but I thought overall an excellent read.
Story Circle Book Reviews
Sep 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed
When a journalist decides to record a difficult personal journey, the rest of us benefit in a multitude of ways. In Pandora's DNA: Tracing The Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science And One Family Tree Lizzie Stark shares not only her personal story, but her journalist's search for all the facts and the backstory.

As she explores and explains the history of breast cancer and the evolution of its various treatments, Stark segues to stories of her grandmother's breast cancer experiences and t
Aug 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
I met the author of this book at a reading at my local bookstore, Politics & Prose, which might have some bearing on my review. As does my genetic status.

I am a BRCA1 gene mutation carrier, just like the author (Lizzie). And many women (and men) are survivors of breast cancer or were killed by breast cancer, just like the author's family.

The book is written as a combination of the history of cancer science and research, the history of her own family and the author's personal experiences with h
Sep 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very good discussion of breast cancer, especially breast cancer in families with an inherited gene which confers a high risk of early breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and even male breast cancer. The author is from such a family, and she tells the story of the family history as it moves through the generations. She grows up as scientists are discovering several of the genes responsible for these cancers. I very much enjoyed reading the history of the race to find the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes. How ...more
Aug 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Pandora's DNA is both an incredibly personal story and a medical history. Stark opens with the "family curse"--her mother's side of the family's battle against breast cancer. As she recounts generations of her family succumbing to this devastating disease, Stark also chronicles the advances in medical screening and surgery, from the draconian Halsted mastectomies to contemporary one-step mastectomy and reconstruction.

Though reading about these procedures and the traumatic effects is daunting, S
Alyssa Pierce
Aug 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
*I received this book for free. I am not being compensated in any way for this review. All opinions expressed here are my own.*

There’s so much that the average person doesn’t know about breast cancer. I received a copy of this book just days after taking my own BRCA test, a test I didn’t know existed until my doctor told me that my family history of breast cancer could be linked to specific gene mutations.

The women in Pandora’s DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Sciences, and
Chris Demer
Dec 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is an engaging and poignant story of a young woman who has inherited the BRCA1 gene, a gene that often results in the development of breast cancer.
Knowing that her grandmother, mother and aunts were all victim of this cancer,Lizzie Stark, the author, struggles with the decision to have herself tested. Eventually she does so, with grim results.
She begins to see herself in a different light- afflicted, possibly consigned to an early death. She grapples with the thought of having a double ma
Sarah Schultz
Apr 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015, death-and-dying
Stark's story loosely follows my own "adventure" through the world of BRCA1 mutations and prophylactic surgery. Her style is accessible--like you are talking to your girlfriend about your BRCA mutation, what it means for you and your family, what you have chosen to do surgically, what that means for you/your husband/your parents/etc. I struggle with how to speak to my sisters about my decisions, as they are younger than me, and wished that Stark had had siblings, bc I would have liked to have se ...more
Feb 11, 2016 rated it liked it
I decided to read this book because I am very interested in DNA. I have previously read the Seven Daughters of Eve and some other books about contemporary DNA research. This book is fairly short, about 278 pages, published in 2014. The author details her personal experiences as a carrier of a gene that increases the risk for breast cancer and her decision to undergo a mastectomy as a preventive measure. She discusses her family's cancer history, the scientific DNA background concerning the type ...more
Dec 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
I liked the book, though it definitely resonated with me for personal reasons. I'm BRCA1+, and have lost my mother (when I was four), grandmother (when my mother was two), and cousin (last year when she was 50) to breast cancer. My grandfather and uncle died of cancer. My uncle died in his thirties from cancer, and my brother had cancer 18 months ago, at age 47. So yes, it's personal for me, and I'm not sure someone without BRCA in their family would find it as absorbing. Maybe yes though -- I l ...more
Jan 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Yes, yes, yes. This book was such a beautiful blend of historical anecdotes relating to breast cancer and treatments, medical information written in an extremely readable way, and personal memoir/reflections from a young woman whose family is rife with the BRCA 1 gene mutations. I found Stark's writing style engaging and the perfect blend of wry humor (but not in a trying-too-hard sort of way) and heart-wrenching vulnerability and honesty. Reading this was like sitting down for coffee with an ol ...more
Sep 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
As a breast cancer survivor, this book hit home to a lot of aspects of the disease. I started this book when I was first diagnosed, but have only been able to finish it since I have recovered from chemotherapy and a left mastectomy. Ms. Stark does an excellent job in relating how all avenues of breast cancer can affect one family. Family history, science, and personal issues are presented very well in the chapters. I am BRCA 1 and 2 negative, zero family history and my mammograms have always bee ...more
Well-researched, moving book about one lady's family history of BRCA and her own decision to have a preventative mastectomy at a young age. This particular lady is a talented journalist and writer, so she puts her own story in historical context with plenty of fascinating info about cultural perceptions of breast cancer, plastic surgery and women's health.

Useful for anybody dealing with their own BRCA situation or anybody interested in really good health and science writing with a friendly, hip
Carol Wakefield
Oct 19, 2015 rated it liked it
In her mid twenties ms Stark finds she carries the BRCA gene that gives its carrier a very high chance of developing breast cancer, breast and ovarian cancer are common in her family and she has watched relatives suffer and dies from the cancers. As a result she decides on a double mastectomy and the book covers her emotions, historical means of cancer surgery and current science on the subject. The book is sometimes difficult to read and Ms Starks life is sometimes difficult to live. But it def ...more
Mar 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Lots of interesting historical details about the history of breast cancer and treatments. I liked that the author gave her findings alongside her own story; it made the book much less dry than it could have been and I found that the author and I have had similar feelings about our bodies at some points. Some chapters are not for the faint of heart but anyone who enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Birth will also enjoy this.
Jun 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
I am not BRCA positive but I am confident that if I was I would have made very similar decisions to the author, based on the best information at the time. That is how we have to make medical decisions; best information at the time. Her journey was painful, difficult and very relatable as was her family's. And she is honest about the emotional toil she also sees how she was fortunate with having choices as difficult as they were. Well written, well researched and also very human. ...more
Joanna Cabot
Jul 07, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, 2015
This book was fantastic. It was well-written, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking and emotional. It was a bit heavy in places, but I'm glad I read it. It tells a very scientific story through a personal lens. I'd read more by this author! ...more
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Pandora's DNA is an exemplary work of Journalism, clearly highlighting Stark's skill as a researcher, thinker, and writer. What is so consistently impressive about Stark's work is her ability to contextualize and humanize the vast amounts of data she incorporates into a compelling narrative. ...more
Dec 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The author interweaves her story, her family's story with the science and history of breast cancer treatment. An excellent book ...more
May 25, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
After loving a course in cell biology, I found this book fascinating. I loved all the information the author provided.
Kathy  Maher
May 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Not a novel but very informative. I'm lucky that my family does not carry this gene but I'm glad I read this book. ...more
Jun 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Very personal account of BRCA mutation and breast cancer. Gives you some good history too. I never thought about what load this brings to affected families.
Jul 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
A nonfiction account of the BrCa gene and it's impact on families. Very informative and chilling. ...more
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Lizzie Stark is the author of the forthcoming Pandora's DNA , which combines the history and science of the so-called breast cancer genes with personal memoir and family research. Her first book, Leaving Mundania, is a narrative nonfiction account of the hobby of larp.

Lizzie holds a masters' degree in journalism from Columbia University and one in in fiction writing from Emerson College. H

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