I am pleased and excited to offer not one, but two guest posts this week during Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week. The first is from previvor Helen Smith. Helen faced her astoundingly painful family history of cancer head on and made tough life-altering decisions to try to keep cancer at bay.
Thank you, Helen, for sharing your story.
My Previvor Story
by Helen Smith
As long as I have been alive cancer has stalked and killed the people I love. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother (maternal) being ill. I vividly remember the day she was taken away on a gurney. She had metastatic breast cancer which had spread through most of her body. I was at the tender age of three and didn’t realize that would be the next to last time I would see her alive. I would no longer hear her wise words, nor feel her warm hugs.
My mother, who cared for my grandmother while she was ill, would be left to raise her 5 siblings along with me and my stepsister. I was too young to know it, but my grandmother’s sister also died from metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37, leaving five children and a husband to figure out how to live life without her.
I can only imagine how my mother and father must have felt raising a family in addition to their own. I can only imagine the fear my mother lived with daily, forever wondering – Will I be next to suffer this horrible fate? Unfortunately, she would be. My mother passed away at the age of 49 from breast cancer that metastasized to her brain.
Knowing we had a staggering family history, my two aunts and I have been diligent when it comes to breast health.
Which leads me to today – I am a previvor. I am someone who is trying to decrease my risk of getting diagnosed with this death sentence of breast cancer by having risk reducing surgeries.
Yes, I call it a death sentence because so far no one who has been diagnosed with breast cancer in my family has survived it.
I heard about BRCA testing in 2001 and was quite curious, but I could not afford the test and insurance did not cover it at the time. That was actually a blessing in disguise. I would find out eight years later that they might not have discovered my mutation at that point in time. Fast forward to 2008. My aunts, my husband and I all went to see a genetic counselor to discuss our family history and the notion of testing to determine if we had a mutation.
We waited another year before anyone would act on it. In June of 2009 I took the plunge and had my blood drawn. One long month later I was told I am BRCA1 positive. Deep in my heart I had figured as much. The news was not shocking, but I still shed some tears upon hearing it. The results made it real, but also brought a strange sense of relief.
I had already looked into what I would do if I were positive, including having a bilateral mastectomy and oophorectomy/hysterectomy as soon as possible. I bought books and read online information from FORCE (facingourrisk.org) and other sites.
These were not decisions I took lightly; it was my life after all!
I chose to have the nipple sparing DIEP procedure which basically uses your stomach fat to build the new breast mounds and saves existing nipples. I was going to school at the time and working on my Bachelor of Science. Being a science minded woman, I have to say my coping mechanism was to delve into the science and treat the whole affair as if it were an experiment. I hid in the science, but had my moments of breakdowns and tears. Even when you know you are making the best decision based on the available information at hand, it still comes with a huge bag of emotions and it is overwhelming at times.
During my recovery from the bilateral mastectomy, I stumbled upon the BRCA Sisterhood on Facebook and I am so glad I did. From there I was led to a fantastic group of women on Facebook called Beyond the Pink Moon. I have made friendships to last a lifetime and hope in some small way I have helped others to cope with their journeys. I will not say it is a good thing to be BRCA positive, but it opened up my life to people and experiences I never would have discovered otherwise.
If you are interested in reading more details about my journey, my personal story can be found in the book Pink Moon Lovelies: Empowering Stories of Survival by Nicki Boscia Durlester. My story along with 49 other Lovelies is included in the book. I am honored to be a part of this anthology and to know the author as well as many of the beautiful women whose stories line the pages.
Helen is a 41 year old previvor and only child. She is married and has three stepchildren. Helen graduated in 2011 from Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology and currently works in a microbiology lab at Children’s hospital in Ohio. Her hobbies include making cards, reading, listening to music and advocating for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer awareness on Facebook via the groups “Beyond the Pink Moon” and “The BRCA Sisterhood.”
Are you, or do you know anyone who is, dealing with a strong family history of cancer? (BRCA+ or not)
If yes, what steps (if any) are you (or are they) taking to deal with things?