I lost my maternal grandmother to breast cancer at 9 years old, with my mother being diagnosed with breast cancer at 40 years old (I was 14). So when looking at contraception options, I was always reluctant to use oestrogen. However, this option was questioned by a nurse when I was 23, who recommended genetic counselling to me.
After filling out the forms and explaining my family history of breast cancer, it was recommended that a blood test be done on my mother, to see if the genetic mutation was present. And it was. It was assumed that my grandmother must have had the BRCA2 gene mutation and it had been passed on to my mother. The next step was to test my two sisters and I, to see if this gene mutation was present. For myself and my younger sister, it was, and for my older sister this wasn’t the case. We were told over the phone, so didn’t have to wait a long time to find out. And to be honest, I was pleased that I had the mutation. Why? Because not only did it provide my younger sister the support she may need, but it gave us both options to prevent breast cancer that wouldn’t be available to us without this mutation.
“Prevention really is greater than a cure”
I received the results in February 2008 and by October 2008 I had my breast tissue removed. It was a bilateral subcutaneous mastectomy with silicone reconstruction, and the sense of relief that my risk of breast cancer is so much lower is something I cannot measure. Although it is a personal choice, for me it seemed like a no-brainer. Of course, breast cancer survival rates are increasing, but chemotherapy and radiotherapy are not simple treatments. Witnessing the side affects of these treatments with my mother convinced me that prevention really is greater than a cure.
I am looking to take this further with the removal of my ovaries (as the risk for ovarian cancer is higher too). However, this surgery is a bit more complicated due to the chemical menopause that would follow it. My local health service are not happy to do this procedure until I am 35, which I will be later this year, so I will in the next few months be putting the wheels in motion to look into this.
My main advice to anyone considering genetic counselling, is that knowledge is power. Ignorance is not bliss, it will not mean that the mutation isn’t there. But knowing it is there will help you take the steps to fight cancer before it appears. That doesn’t have to be surgery, it could be a higher level of screening, but without the knowledge, this cannot happen.
For those with a mutation, I know it is a hard thing to come to terms with, but take your time to think what you want to do. For me it was very straight forward, but I had it in my mind that I was likely to get breast cancer years before I had even heard of genetic counselling. And to have that in the back of your mind for 10 years is horrible. So my surgery and the peace of mind I have from it is an amazing feeling.
To understand and find out if your family history puts you at risk of ovarian or breast cancer, use the Hereditary Cancer Tool provided by Ovarian Cancer Action.