Monday, September 13, 2010

Still Smiling

Everyone knows that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  But lesser know, is that September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.  Unfortunately, both cancers are closely related.  For women who are at an increased or hereditary risk for these cancers, it is even more so.  For me, this is exactly the case.

My grandmother died at age 51 from ovarian cancer before I had the chance to know her. Soon after, three of her sisters developed breast cancer, with her sister Ann dying from the disease.  My grandmother also had two nieces who developed early onset breast cancer.  One of those nieces, Linda, decided the prevalence of early onset breast and ovarian cancer in our family was too great not to take seriously, and underwent genetic testing to determine if there was a mutation in our family that could put us at an increased risk.  Unfortunately, they found that there was.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes known as tumor suppressors.  Mutation of these genes is linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, and unfortunately, can be inherited from a parent.  Once Linda was informed of her BRCA2 mutation, everyone in the family needed to get tested.

A normal woman has about a 12 percent risk of developing breast cancer sometime during their lives.  This translates to one in eight women - a scary statistic.  Even more scary, a woman who has inherited a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation has as much as an 87 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.  They also have as much as a 54 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer and are at an increased risk for malignant melanoma and pancreatic cancer.

This past June, after learning that my dad tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation like his cousin, my sister and I went together to get tested.  Thankfully, my sister was fine.  I, unfortunately, had inherited the mutation.

Upon hearing my results, I immediately made an appointment with the Georgetown Cancer Center to discuss my options and begin my cancer screenings.  A few weeks later I had my first mammogram, as recommended by my doctor.  I knew it would be unpleasant, but as it was just a routine measure, I figured it would be uneventful.  Much to my surprise, the mammogram came back abnormal - I had two calcifications in my right breast - a possible indicator of cancer.  I knew I was at risk for cancer at an early age, but at 24 years old, I was not prepared for that result at all.  After a failed biopsy attempt and an MRI, it was determined they were most likely benign and it wasn't necessary to have a lumpectomy at that time.  Still, I am getting another mammogram in January to check on the status, and will continue to get breast cancer screenings every six months for the rest of my life.

I knew, as a woman, breast cancer was something I would have to worry about.  I never imagined that at age 24 I could have an abnormal mammogram, be considering a prophylactic double mastectomy (preventive removal of the breasts) and oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries), and have a file in my desk titled "cancer" (I really do).  Still, I'm finding out more and more about other women in similar situations, and I feel blessed to be in a position where I can be proactive with my health. 

If you are interested in learning more about organizations dedicated to high-risk individuals, check out Bright Pink and FORCE.

For stories of other BRCA positive women, check out Claudia's blog and In The Family.

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