Four years ago, my seemingly healthy mother was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer on her 60th birthday. It was a terrible and seemingly endless ordeal. Thankfully, she is now in remission after three surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy. During her treatment, my mother's doctor recommended that she undergo genetic testing. The results identified her as a carrier of the BRCA genetic mutation. My family is of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage (about 1 in 40 are BRCA mutation carriers). Carriers of the mutation have a significantly higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer compared to non-carriers. I have the mutation as well.
According to current research, carriers of the BRCA mutation face a heightened risk of developing ovarian cancer as early as their 30's. However, the increased risk of developing breast cancer may manifest in individuals in their 20's. I was 26 when I learned that I carried the mutation. Breast cancer is the second most common cause of death among women in the U.S. So, ignoring the mutation was not an option.
I had a difficult decision to make. I could continue receiving mammograms and MRIs every six months to detect a malignancy if and when it developed. Or, I could choose to have a double-mastectomy and reconstructive surgery to remove the risk. Surveillance or surgery: that is the question!
Ultimately, I opted for prophylactic surgery in July 2015. I made my decision after many consultations and conversations, including one with a friend who had faced the same situation and written an ALA Notable Book about it -- Pandora's DNA.
I had the same surgical team as my friend -- an oncologist and plastic surgeon in upstate New York who pioneered the "one-step" direct-to-implant/mastectomy/reconstruction. They completed the surgery in three hours with no need for follow-up procedures. My recovery time was limited. And the scarring is nearly invisible. Most importantly, I drop-kicked my risk of developing breast cancer from 60-80% to 1%.
My decision to become a breast cancer "previvor" was the right one for me for many reasons. My line manager and study team were so supportive! I could take all the recovery time I needed, which ended up being only a few weeks! Within six weeks, I felt pretty much normal again and returned to all the activities I love: dancing, yoga, hiking, even martial arts.
If I had any doubts about my decision, the pathology results after my surgery banished them completely. There was no malignancy requiring chemo, but I did have a benign hyperplasia -- or cell overgrowth -- that could have potentially turned malignant in the future. The moment I received those results, I felt more thankful for my decision than ever. I am proud to be a breast cancer previvor and immensely grateful for having been so lucky. Since this experience, I have been involved with breast cancer and BRCA support organizations to help other women.
World Cancer Day