It all began in October 1997, I was 12 years old, my mum, Carmel, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer, she was only 41.
Mum woke up one Sunday morning to find a hard lump in her tummy area. After much poking and prodding, the tumour (although we didn’t know it at the time) popped out from behind her pelvic bone and she thus looked 5 months pregnant. No symptoms were present before this. After numerous scans and blood tests, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. After a full hysterectomy and 4 months of aggressive chemotherapy treatment she thankfully kicked it to the curb and now 23 years on, Mum is fighting fit but unfortunately our family history does not end here.
In February of 1998, just 4 short months after Mum’s Ovarian Cancer diagnosis, her sister, my Aunty Grace, was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer at the age of 39, after discovering a lump in her breast.
Grace underwent treatment with breast conserving surgery (lumpectomy), lymph node removal, which luckily showed no trace of cancerous cells, as well as chemo and radiotherapy. However, in 2018, 20 years following her initial diagnosis, Grace received the news that she had developed Hormonal Cancer in the other breast and chose to have a double mastectomy to remove the risk of any further cancer diagnosis.
Sadly, my Mum’s youngest sister, my Aunty Maria, also received a Triple Negative Breast Cancer diagnosis in early 2010, when she was 46 years old. She followed the same treatment path as Grace however even with regular follow up screening, her cancer later metastasized into sternum cancer, diagnosed in December 2013. In February 2019, Maria lost her battle with cancer and devastatingly passed away.
2019 would become the hardest year of our lives.
Back in early 2013, after much deliberation and consultation, my Mum, Carmel underwent genetic testing and tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation.
Following the passing of my amazing Aunty Maria, who had consistently pushed me to make sure that I knew what my own risk was and with a desire to know if I should have another baby or not, I too had the genetic test in July 2019. And, my suspicions were confirmed when I tested positive for BRCA1.
I received this news one week before my Mum was scheduled for her preventative double mastectomy. She knew even at the age of 63, she still ran the risk and wanted to prevent this as much as possible.
So, once I had helped my Mum recover from her surgery, it was time for me to make decisions about how I would reduce my own risk. As a Mum to three beautiful young children, and now aged 33, I knew what I had to do. I had gone through 7 years of extensive screening since 2013 including before, during and after each pregnancy and I knew I couldn’t continue this way, I’d had enough of the anxiety.
In late January of this year, 2020, with my incredibly supportive husband, Tim beside me every step of the way, I underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy with tissue expanders inserted as stage one of my reconstruction. Due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on elective surgeries, six months later, I am still waiting to have my expanders replaced with implants. I am currently scheduled for this surgery in late July.
Since my mastectomy in January, I have however also undergone a full hysterectomy. Today I feel great, I’m using an Estradot which is a stick-on patch form of HRT and although it has been 18 months of turmoil and heart ache, I am so incredibly grateful. Unlike my Mum and my Aunties, I have been gifted the opportunity to know my risk. This knowledge has allowed me to take my future health into my own hands and make choices that give me the confidence to know that I will be around for my children. BRCA1 has taught me to be strong, brave and to grab this gene mutation by the horns.
Given everything that my body has physically and emotionally endured this year, I feel so much lighter for having taken control and reduced my risk. It is a massive weight lifted and I feel safe knowing that I have done absolutely everything in my power to combat this insidious disease and to be here for my kids. My Aunty Maria has by far been my biggest inspiration. She has and always will be accountable for my now, new lease on life where BRCA1 will not dictate my future.