My name is Jen and this is my story.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 50 and I was 20. It was scary at the time. We knew people who had died of cancer, so we wondered if she’d be ok. But after her treatment she made a full recovery. We were very thankful and life went on.
Given our mother’s history, my sister and I were told to start getting screened from the age of 40. When my sister reached that age, a few years ahead of me, she took it on herself to do some research. She contacted a hereditary cancer clinic – they asked about the family history. Interestingly, after going through the history, despite our mother’s earlier cancer diagnosis, it was our father they wanted to speak with. I knew his mother had died young from illness, but I didn’t really know how she died. It was a long time ago, well before I was born. I never knew her, I didn’t look like her, but it turned out I carried her genes.
I found out my paternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer when she was in her 50s, and she’d also had a mastectomy due to breast cancer during her lifetime. I now know that incidence of both ovarian and breast cancer is a strong indicator of a BRCA gene default. She was also a Jewish lady from Europe, a third factor which I also know now is more prevalent in BRCA carriers. Being a Catholic Australian, it didn’t cross my mind that something that affected a European Jewish person would be relevant for me.
As a result of my sister’s investigation, my father was tested for the BRCA gene, and, while he was waiting for his test result, I randomly found a lump. The story from there is similar to many of those you will have heard before or possibly experienced yourself. Biopsy revealed cancer. Rush to have lump removed. Husband and small children (two very young daughters) at home. Pathology was scary – triple negative, aggressive, stage 3, 12 lymph nodes positive. Oncologist prescribed chemo and radio. The stuff you don’t wish on your worst enemy. But I consider myself very lucky! My father’s genetic test result came back positive to BRCA1. A genetic test was hurried through for me, which also unsurprisingly came back positive. Because of this information, I was able to have chemotherapy tailored toward BRCA related cancer. The knowledge gave my oncologist the power to give me something he otherwise would not have prescribed. It might have saved my life. I won’t ever know, but I feel lucky it wasn’t the other way around – wondering, if we’d known that I was BRCA1 positive, could they have done something different…
Naturally, I’ve had the preventative surgeries so I feel comfortable that I’ve removed the risk of further BRCA related cancer. And I’ve just passed my five year anniversary since diagnosis. To celebrate, I hosted a morning tea in honour of Pink Hope. The message to “know your family history” really resonated with my colleagues, and being able to share that message through my personal story humbled me.
Both my siblings have been tested and thankfully are not BRCA1 positive. I don’t know about my six and seven year old daughters yet but we don’t need to worry about that for a while. What I do know though, is, if they are carriers, they will be fine – just like me. Because that knowledge will give us power.
Knowledge is power. Know your family history. Feel your boobs.