It is that time of year again. The weather is turning colder, the leaves are beginning to change, Halloween costumes are being picked out, and there is pink everywhere you turn. Yesterday as I was taking my daughter to the park I drove by a large piece of plywood with a painted pink pig on it, 20 or more pink painted pumpkins, and breast cancer ribbons on the lawn of a local realty company. I am sure this serves some purpose, but it was lost on me.
October for me is always bittersweet. While I welcome the awareness, and messages of the importance of self exams and early detection, I am constantly reminded of the disease that took my mother’s life 15 years ago and of my own battle with breast cancer three years ago.
At 32 I was diagnosed with stage II B triple negative breast cancer. Life was good, my husband and I had been married for eight years, my daughter was four months old and my son was a few months shy of his third birthday.
It was a Friday night that I received the news that sent me crashing to the floor. A few days prior to my diagnosis my obgyn told me I was too young to have breast cancer.
Although I knew this to be untrue, I still found comfort in his words and convinced myself it was a clogged milk duct.
Two weeks later I underwent a bilateral mastectomy and four weeks following surgery I began my five month chemotherapy regiment. At the end of my chemo treatment I had genetic testing to see if I carried the BRCA mutation (a.k.a the breast and ovarian cancer gene). I was in fact positive for the gene mutation and for some reason I was surprised by this news, even with my strong family history. The reality then struck me that my children have a 50% chance of inheriting the BRCA mutation, putting them both at risk for breast cancer and other cancers including ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic.
Knowledge is power. Although my cancer journey has been difficult and it was very difficult to hear that my children and sisters could be at high risk, the knowledge that I am a carrier of the BRCA mutation has helped us to stay one step ahead of cancer.
A year following my diagnosis I had my ovaries removed to eliminate the risk of ovarian cancer. I firmly believe that if my mother had had that knowledge, treatment would have been more aggressive and she would have won her battle with breast cancer, before it became metastatic. I also believe that if I had the knowledge prior to my diagnosis, I would have been able to avoid my cancer diagnosis through a prophylactic mastectomy or at least been able to catch it earlier through increased screening.
I had heard about the genetic test in my twenties, but I did not know that if I tested positive I could have up to an 85% risk of developing the disease and a 40% risk of developing ovarian cancer. I did not know that I could have had a prophylactic mastectomy that would lower my lifetime breast cancer risk to less than the U.S. national average, which is currently 12%.
However, I do not live in the past. I have embraced my cancer journey and all that has come with it.
Having this knowledge will benefit my sisters and my children most of all.
We make life choices that promote health and wellness and I feel that is a gift I can give my children. One day, they will be armed with the knowledge they will need to make informed decisions as they become old enough to have the genetic testing.
FORCE, Facing our Risk of Cancer Empowered, is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer through education, support, and resources. There are local chapters throughout the United States and in other countries including Canada, Israel, and Australia. The World Health Organization reports that in 2010 there was more than 1.6 million cases of breast cancer worldwide, making it the top cancer for women in the developed and developing world. Although BRCA mutations are a just a small portion of these cases, there are certain groups that are at higher risk of carrying the mutation. These are people with Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish ancestry and people of Norwegian, Dutch, and Icelandic ancestry.
I am now the Raleigh, NC area FORCE Outreach Co-Coordinator and we are a resource for women in the North Carolina area that have a strong family history of breast cancer or have tested positive for the BRCA mutation. We have support group meetings and work with the local genetic counselors. I am very excited to help bring support and education to families affected by hereditary breast cancer and to make sure women have the information they need to make informed decisions. We need to be our biggest health care advocates and doctors need to get the word out on genetic testing and how it can save lives.
Pink-Tober is in full swing and I hope that we can ignore the commercialism of it (and the giant pink pigs) and focus on its real purpose. Early detection saves lives! If you have a family history, please speak with a local genetic counselor.
If you notice a lump, or any changes in your breasts, get it checked out and don’t allow your concerns to be dismissed by your doctors.
Too many of our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and daughters are losing their battle to this terrible disease. Until there is a cure, we need to focus on education, surveillance, and early detection.
To find out more about FORCE and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer please visit http://www.facingourrisk.org
To find out more about breast cancer in young women go to
Risk factors for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer
From the FORCE website:
How are hereditary cancers different?
- Hereditary cancer tends to occur at an earlier age than the sporadic form of the same cancer, so screening and risk-lowering recommendations for hereditary cancer may be different and may begin at an earlier age
- Hereditary gene changes and the accompanying increased risk for cancer can be shared by relatives and passed on to children.
- People with hereditary cancer have a higher risk for more than one type of cancer. In people who have already been diagnosed with a cancer, this may affect their cancer treatment or follow-up care.
- Specific screening or risk-lowering options are recommended for people at high risk for certain types of hereditary cancer.
Note: If you believe that breast or ovarian cancer runs in your family, you should contact a cancer genetic counselor, geneticist, or equally-qualified health care provider. These health care professionals can help determine your risk for hereditary cancer, inform you of available genetic tests and their benefits and limitations, order appropriate genetic tests, assist with insurance reimbursement of tests, and interpret the test results.
This is an original guest post to World Moms Blog. Katerina is a mom to Nathaniel, 6 and Lillian,4 and two labs Sasha and Dakota. She is a NJ native and recently relocated to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Kat helped to start a young survivor breast cancer support group at UNC. She is happiest when she is enjoying the fresh air with her family, especially at the beach. Kat is passionate about nutrition and health. She feels so fortunate for every day that she get to spend with her husband and children. Every day is a gift.