My name is Jessica and this is my story.
Triple negative breast cancer and me.
When I was about 14 years old I found out that my paternal grandmother had passed away from breast cancer at 34 years of age. My dad was only 5 years old at the time. It was something that was not really talked about in my family, not until my sister and I were old enough to understand. One day we were at the crematorium for a family member’s funeral and dad said, ‘do you want to see where your grandmother is buried?’ It was a profound experience to sit there, and reflect on what it meant for my dad to lose his mother so young to such an insidious disease. Throughout my early adult years I often wondered if cancer would return to any members of my family, like a haunting dream.
At some point in 2015 I decided to talk to my GP about genetic testing, given my family history. Together with my GP we went through the Cancer Australia Familiar Risk Assessment (FRA BOC) but because I only had 1 secondary relative, I was not ‘at high risk’ of developing breast cancer. At the time to qualify for BRCA testing you needed to present with a minimum of 3 first degree relatives, like a mother, aunt or sister with breast or ovarian cancer, I didn’t even come close to this criteria.
During 2016 my cousin had wisely pushed for my uncle (who is a doctor and had some important connections) and my dad to be tested for the BRCA gene, given our Jewish ancestry. For this I owe her my life. It turns out the BRCA2 gene is extremely strong in my family, my uncle and 2 out of 4 of his children have the gene, as well as my father and sister (100% strike rate on my side of the family, given each child has a 50% chance of having the gene mutation). We were signed up for 6 monthly monitoring and I never in a million years thought that if I did get breast cancer it would come on so quickly, at such a young age. In fact, I was so sure I was not going to get cancer that I had just moved to Singapore with my fiancé and begun a 2 year master’s degree.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer after a biopsy on my 30th birthday in July 2017. If I hadn’t been tested for the BRCA mutation I wouldn’t have known to get screened. The tumour was so small neither I nor a doctor was able to feel it. Immediately I was lost between my old life, which vanished overnight, as I was plunged into this new world. But, there was a silver lining, they caught the tumour so early that I had the chance to fight it off.
When I was diagnosed and whilst I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer well intentioned people often reminded me that “these days most people survive breast cancer” and “breast cancer charities get so much money because of its pink marketing”. These are common statements when it comes to breast cancer, but are in fact misconceptions about the type of breast cancer that I had been diagnosed with. Doctors always test for three different clinical markers: estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor and human epidermal growth factor receptor. The results would determine what kind of treatment I would receive. My cancer was negative to these three receptors and because of that I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.
After lumpectomy, I went through a round of IVF. Following this, the only treatment available to me was intensive chemotherapy, which is gruelling and has no guarantee of success. To finish, a bilateral mastectomy, which crushed my body image and future hopes of breast feeding. But, my health had to come first or there would be no future at all.
Whilst my prognosis is good, and I am on my way to getting back to “normal” life, I don’t like to use the words “survivor” or “in remission”. Yes, I had cancer and yes, it happened to me, but no, it is not a part of who I am. Like any other traumatic experience in life, you get through it, try to learn from it and then move forward.
Knowledge is power.
If I hadn’t been tested for the BRCA mutation I wouldn’t have known to get screened and the tumour was so small I wouldn’t have been able to feel it, potentially until it was bigger and more dangerous.