Video: Breast cancer ‘previvors’ defy genetic destiny

By NBC News Researcher
updated 10/20/2010 3:45:49 PM ET 2010-10-20T19:45:49

I was 20 years old when I found out I had the breast cancer gene.

Years before, my dad had learned he carried the BRCA 1 genetic mutation, which increases a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer to 87 percent, and the risk of ovarian cancer to 44 percent. My parents waited to tell me until they thought I was old enough to decide whether I wanted to find out if I had inherited the gene.

When I got the test results back, I felt helpless. My body felt like a ticking time bomb.  I didn’t relish the thought of wondering, every morning, if this was the day I woke up with breast cancer.   

So I researched my options: I could start early surveillance, getting MRIs and mammograms to detect any abnormalities. Or I could get a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, reducing my risk to less than 10 percent.

The concept of “the m-word” scared me. Part of me wanted to keep my natural breasts while they posed minimal threat to me. But I considered the advantages of getting them removed now. My young body could bounce back quickly. And I had a built-in recuperation period: Spring break.

So I decided to go for it.

During spring break of my senior year, I had the mastectomy. And two months later, just a few days shy of graduation: implants! Taking a little… I’ll call it surgical license, I chose slightly bigger implants than my natural size – an ancillary benefit to the surgery. And I looked and felt fabulous.

Oh yeah, and now I probably won’t get breast cancer.

I talked to two other girls who, just like me, found out they had a genetic risk of cancer in their early 20s. Claudia Gilmore and Jen Davis are both testaments to the idea that knowledge is power. Cancer ran in their families – as it does in mine – so they took action to assess their own risk. When genetic testing confirmed the worst, they didn’t just hide under the covers – they began early surveillance and, eventually, chose preventative surgery. Claudia has set a date for her prophylactic bilateral mastectomy (PBM) and Jen has already had hers.

Now both girls are helping other women affected by breast cancer. Claudia volunteers at a hospital, preparing breast cancer patients for surgery, and Jen works for the plastic surgeon that reconstructed her breasts. She treats post-mastectomy patients at least once a week.

Finding out you have a genetic risk of cancer at a young age is no fun at all. But modern science and medicine – plus a decent dose of willpower – can make it a lot less scary.

Thanks for reading this – I just had to get it all off my chest.

To learn more about BRCA 1 and 2, visit www.facingourrisk.orgor–two organizations devoted to helping women of all ages deal with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.


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