My mom called me when I was in my third year of medical school to say she found a lump in her breast. I can remember coming home to accompany her to the breast surgeon. Glancing at her mammogram in the parking lot, as we walked in to her consultation, I felt a pit in my stomach. The little training I had told me it was not good. My mom went on to complete six months of chemotherapy and has been cancer free ever since.
Since that fateful day 20 years ago, a lot has happened. We came to learn that my mom carries the BRCA2 gene mutation. This meant my siblings and I had a 50 percent chance of inheriting this mutation. The BRCA2 mutation significantly increases a person’s risk of getting both breast and ovarian cancer. Because my parents come from very small families, with no history of breast cancer, we were shocked by the results. Unlike other families with this mutation, we had no long tale of cancer-ridden relatives to make it all seem real.
As I researched what little scientists knew about this mutation back in 1995, my medical sense told me that if I had the gene I would have prophylactic bilateral mastectomies (PBM). This would reduce my risk of cancer to less than 5 percent. Years later when I learned that I too had the gene, the decision to have a PBM was not that simple. Thankfully, I found some great support in the community where I live with the help of oncologist, Dr. Grana, and online information from the non-profit organization FORCE.
The FORCE community is committed to helping all women who have a hereditary risk of breast and ovarian cancers. FORCE has given women like me a place to share our stories and gather more information about the options available to reduce our cancer risks. Meeting and speaking with women who truly understand what it is like to consider removing an important healthy body part, which is NOT cancerous, is so invaluable!
I have heard too many women recount their sad memories of loved ones who died from breast cancer to just sit back and wait for it to happen to me. Knowledge is powerful and I intend to collect as much information I can to make the most informed decision that is right for me. For now, I keep up with surveillance. I have had a prophylactic oophorectomy (removal of ovaries) to reduce my risk of ovarian cancer.
I look at my two daughters every day and hope that they will never have to face such tough decisions. But I know that it is equally important for me to be there if they do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Heidi Weinroth, MD