Happy 70th mam
This past weekend should have been a weekend of celebration. The weekend when my mam should have been celebrating her 70th birthday. Except she lost her long battle to breast cancer back in 2000 at the devastatingly young age of 54. I was robbed of my mam when I was 24 and my children and niece and nephew have never known their grandmother Jean. She’s always on my mind, but never more so than this week on what would have been a landmark birthday celebration, which happens to coincide with October’s Breast Cancer Awareness month.
I’m not going to focus on the pain and guilt of losing my mum today. I don’t think I could possibly put it any better than this post by Jane at Maflingo, who’s experience of losing her uncle was oh-so-unnervingly similar to mine 16 years ago when I lost my mum. Instead, I hope this post will raise some awareness of genetic breast cancer and encourage anyone with a family history of the disease to look into genetic testing.
The hereditary breast cancer link
My mam had an inkling there was a hereditary link in our family when she discovered she had breast cancer after losing both her sister and aunts to the disease. Always interested in science, she pushed for genetic testing, still quite new at the time, and they discovered she had a faulty BRCA2 gene (the ugly sister of BRCA1, which you may know Angelina Jolie has). Of course, it was too late for my mum to do anything about it, but it did mean she was able to help the geneticists isolate our family gene that may have been passed onto me, my brother (which increases his risk of prostate cancer) and our cousins (we all have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the fault gene).
When I was 35, after putting my head in the sand for a number of years, I decided the time was right to do the genetic test myself. I prepared myself for the worst through genetic counselling, but it was still a shock when the blood test came back positive. This meant I had a much greater risk (around 85% lifetime risk) of developing breast cancer compared to the average woman (you can find out more on this at Breast Cancer Research UK). Within a few weeks, I had a mammogram (which didn’t show up anything) and an MRI scan at St George’s hospital in Tooting. This latter scan, so important for younger women whose breast tissue is more dense, picked up a lump which led to a biopsy and the culprit being sent off for analysis. That was one long week, and I worried I’d put off the genetic testing too long and it was too late. But thankfully the results came back benign. However, having originally thought this knowledge meant I’d simply have annual observational screenings, conversations quickly turned to a risk-reducing mastectomy and the various options available to me. I was in denial at first. I’d seen what my mother looked like after her mastectomy and it brought back so many difficult memories I wanted to leave buried. But as weeks turned to months and we were thinking of starting a family, I knew I had to act, both for my mam and for my future children. My mother had given me the gift of knowledge. Knowledge that I could do something to improve my odds and the chance to live the full life that she and my aunt didn’t.
Moving on with my life
In November 2012, I had a risk-reducing double mastectomy with reconstruction, using a strattice (like an inner bra made from medical pig’s skin) and implants. Making that decision was probably the hardest one of my life. After all, maybe I’d be in the 15% of faulty gene carriers who’d go on to live a happy, cancer-free life. But I knew I’d spend every year for the rest of my life wondering if and when it would come after me. In fact, I remember sitting in the pre-theatre waiting room, reading ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ (I bet that freaked a lot of fellow patients out!) and realising I was doing this because I had to move on with life. I still see my surgeon every year for check-ups, but my risk of breast cancer has now dropped to under 5%, which is lower than the general population (around 10%). Now that my family is complete, I also need to make the decision to remove my ovaries, and I’ll be meeting St George’s amazing team again to start those discussions later this year.
Make one person aware
If I can pass on anything via this post, it’s this. If you have multiple people in your family affected by breast and/or prostate cancer, ask your GP to refer you to a geneticist. Maybe it will rule you out of the high risk profile and maybe it won’t. Either way, knowledge is power. Whether you opt for annual screenings to keep things in check, or choose to go down the risk-reducing surgery route like me, that’s your personal choice. Most importantly, having the genetic test means you could save your entire family for generations to come. ‘Make one person aware’ is the key message behind the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline, where you can find more information on hereditary breast cancer.
Here’s to my mam on her 70th birthday
Last week, my niece and nephew baked a cake in memory of the grandmother they never knew, which was totally unexpected and totally had me in tears (they just don’t know it). My mam was always one for a good party, so instead of focusing this post on how much I terribly miss her, I chose to celebrate during the #BloggersBeatingCancer virtual coffee morning last week with a slice of cake and a donation. If I can raise awareness of hereditary breast cancer and save one family from this awful disease, I know I’d have done my mam proud. Happy 70th birthday mam.
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