A Journey Begins
Given Alex’s family history of cancer, she says, “I just knew I would get it [cancer] one day. I just never thought that day would come so quickly.” In March of 2015, at the age of 38, Alex attended a fundraiser for her son’s school. Reviewing photos from the event, she noticed an image that showed a large lump protruding from her armpit. Surprised and somewhat concerned, she went to urgent care and was immediately referred to a local cancer clinic for further evaluation. Alex underwent a breast MRI, multiple mammograms, and breast biopsies. Tests revealed that she had breast cancer.
"Own that this is who you are, but don't let it define you. Don't let it own you."
Based on her young age at the time of her diagnosis and her family history of cancer her physicians were concerned that she could have Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Syndrome, which could possibly be due to a mutation in one of her BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Alex underwent genetic testing which detected a mutation one of her BRCA2 genes, confirming her doctors’ suspicions of HBOC Syndrome.
Individuals who have HBOC Syndrome have an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Other cancers associated with HBOC Syndrome include male breast, prostate, pancreatic, and melanoma (a type of skin cancer). Women who have HBOC Syndrome and have had a diagnosis of breast cancer have an increased risk of developing a second breast cancer in their lifetime. Given this information and in order to significantly reduce her risk of a second breast cancer, Alex chose to undergo bilateral mastectomy. In total, she would undergo chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and 28 rounds of radiation to combat her breast cancer.Knowledge is Power
Alex came to the UCSF Center for BRCA Research’s Hereditary Cancer Clinic to learn more about her diagnosis of HBOC Syndrome and how to empower herself. She met with a genetic counselor who was able to clarify Alex’s questions about her increased cancer risk. Moreover, the genetic counselor provided Alex with the information she needed to help her reduce that risk and become proactive instead of reactive in her fight against cancer.
One concern Alex voiced to her genetic counselor was about having her ovaries removed. It is often recommended that a woman who has HBOC Syndrome have her ovaries removed after child bearing is complete in order to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer. Alex’s genetic counselor was able to provide some relief when she explained to Alex that she could wait until age 40 before she had to start thinking about removing her ovaries. Alex now knows that while she will ultimately have her ovaries removed, that time is not now.
Keeping it Positive
Alex has kept a positive attitude throughout this journey. Whether it’s completing chemotherapy, surgery, or a radiation treatment Alex chooses to celebrate each step that brings her closer to finishing her journey with breast cancer. Alex acknowledges that the support from her family and community has helped keep her going. Alex’s soccer teammates and parents from her son’s school have also rallied around her. Her employer was also flexible with her workload, which allowed Alex to work throughout her battle with breast cancer. Even with all of the love and support, Alex admits that the aftermath of fighting breast cancer is draining, both emotionally and physically.
In light of her genetic status, Alex confesses, “People say how it’s over but it’s never over for me.” She knows that in order to prevent or detect another cancer at an early and treatable stage she will have to stay diligent about her cancer screening. With the help of the UCSF Center for BRCA Research, Alex will be able to make sure that she is getting the most up-to-date cancer screenings and that these screenings are completed on time. While Alex’s diagnosis of breast cancer and HBOC Syndrome has changed her life, she has this to say about having HBOC Syndrome, "Own that this is who you are, but don't let it define you. Don't let it own you."