As I prepare my comments for the survivor speech at Relay for Life’s opening ceremony, I ponder what to talk about this year. I decide to again focus on the Relay theme: Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back. In doing this I talk about Dr. Mary-Claire King.
Dr. King, a research scientist and professor of genome sciences at University of Washington is the person who discovered the BRCA1 gene, responsible for 5-10% of all breast cancers and up to 25% of inherited breast cancer. Men and women who carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation are at a much higher risk of developing breast cancer. A BRCA gene can be inherited from either parent.
Dr. Mary-Claire King’s work reigns amongst the best in cancer research. Her work confirmed what my mom and her family suspected for decades, something in their DNA was killing them with breast or ovarian cancers. My mom and her three aunts all died of breast cancer. Mom’s mom (my grandma) and her sister (my aunt) had breast cancer. One of mom’s first cousins died of ovarian cancer, another had breast cancer then died from pancreatic cancer. Breast cancer is prevalent on both sides of mom’s family.
Dr. King’s BRCA1 discovery forever changed breast cancer diagnosis and treatment around the globe. Screening for the BRCA genes has saved thousands of lives for those that carry a mutation. Her research took about 20 years, proving it pays to be patient and persistent. Call it women’s intuition, but her work began with her observations that breast cancer was common in some families and that all cancer is somehow genetic.
In 1995, Dr. King was named an American Cancer Society Research Professor, allowing her to continue her research now focused on inexpensive, accurate ways to identify and characterize every mutation in every known breast cancer gene. In a TIME magazine story, Dr.King discusses women in science, children and more.