By Kristen Adams
Before I was even born, breast cancer was a part of my life. It’s a part of my family history. It’s in my genes, literally. By the time I was born, almost every female on my mom’s side of the family going back several generations had died of breast cancer, and I grew up knowing that there was the strong probability it would be in my future in some way or another. I just didn’t know how or when.
My first experience with this awful disease was in the late 1990s when my aunt, my mom’s oldest sister, was diagnosed. She went through genetic testing, which was very new at the time, but came back negative for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. At the time, the geneticist gave what I consider to be life-saving advice. He told my mom and her two healthy sisters that based on our family history, there obviously was some kind of genetic link, but it hadn’t yet been discovered. This was the advice that led to my mom and my aunts undergoing prophylactic double mastectomies in the early 2000s. Basically, they had the “Angelina Jolie surgery,” before Angelina Jolie made it famous.
Fast forward to the summer of 2017. I’m 32 years old and find a lump in my right breast. Knowing my family history, I immediately make an appointment with my doctor. After an extremely nerve-racking and stressful few days of waiting for mammogram and ultrasound results, I learn that the lump is a cyst. I breathe a sigh of relief, but can’t help but think that this is my future. Worrying about when the shoe is going to drop and wondering if/when I am going to get the diagnosis that would change my life forever.
Coincidentally — or fatefully — a week or so after this ordeal, my sister called to let me know that she had decided to do genetic testing, and hers came back positive for the CHEK2 gene. It was a newly discovered gene associated with female breast cancer. My aunt’s genetist was right. Our family did have a genetic link to breast cancer; it just hadn’t been discovered — until now. I knew immediately that I had to know if I carried the gene. A quick blood draw and about two weeks of waiting led to a call from my doctor’s office informing me I did indeed test positive for CHEK2.
The bad news was, yes, I had the gene. The good news was I now KNEW I had the gene. I had the power to do something about it, unlike the women in my family before me. So what was I going to do with this power? I had options. I could start very early screenings with mammograms and ultrasounds every six months, or I could follow the path my mom and aunts so bravely paved for me and go through with a prophylactic double mastectomy.
I may have only been 32 years old, but I was happily married, had a wonderful support system of friends and close family, and was finished having children. For me, it was a no brainer. I decided that I didn’t want to find even the tiniest bit of cancer, even as early as it could be found. I didn’t want them to find ANY cancer in my body. EVER. As far as I was concerned, my breasts were ticking time bombs. Even though everyone in my family was diagnosed in their 40s, I decided that I didn’t want to risk waiting. I did my research and chose what I considered to be my dream team: breast surgeon Dr. Liz Lee and plastic surgeon Dr. Patrick Hsu.
Opting for Life-Changing Surgery
On Oct. 23, 2017, I underwent the life-changing surgery at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. I was scared and very nervous. Up until that point, I had never been under anesthesia, never had stitches and the only hospitalizations of my life were when I gave birth to my two babies. However, I had peace. I knew I was in good hands and I knew I was doing this for my family. The way I saw it, I could wait and have this surgery later with a cancer diagnosis, probably followed by treatment, or I could do it now on my own terms and recover while I’m healthy.
It certainly has not been easy. It is a major surgery. I had a lot of help. I had family, friends and neighbors step up and help with the kids, bring my family meals and rally around me. It is not something I could have done alone, but I am so glad that I did it. After the initial double mastectomy, I had two more surgeries to complete my reconstruction, and within a year of testing positive, I’m done. It’s over, and I can now move forward with my life knowing that I did everything in my power to stay alive for my family.
Find the Right Course for You
I am not saying that surgery is the answer for everyone. It is extreme and I completely understand that. What I believe is that knowledge, power and being confident in your choices is for everyone. Whatever you can do today to stay healthy is the right choice for you. Whether that is being diligent with your yearly mammogram, discussing your family history with your loved ones or deciding to get tested for a possible genetic link. Knowledge is power and breast cancer is too awful of a disease for you to let it take that power. Nobody is promised tomorrow. There are a million ways in which I could leave this Earth, but it feels so good to be able to say that breast cancer will not be one of them.
Memorial Hermann Cancer Centers, in partnership with Memorial Hermann Breast Care Centers, provide screening, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up for breast cancer in Houston. Learn more about breast cancer screening, diagnosis and prevention. Make your mammogram appointment online using ScheduleNow.