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I have spent most of my life preparing to be a fighter, but I never once wanted to be a survivor.
However, earlier this year, at the age of 31, I not only earned that classification but became the 10th and youngest woman in my family to receive and overcome a breast cancer diagnosis.
Family History Significantly Impacted My Journey
Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among women in the United States, with one in eight women receiving the difficult diagnosis in their lifetime. These odds significantly increase when you have a family history of cancer like I do.
Breast cancer has made its way down my family tree, affecting four generations of women from my great-grandmother and all three of her daughters to my aunts, cousins, and mom with varying severity.
When the science advanced enough to identify the BRCA2 gene mutation in my family, it only confirmed what we had already learned about the hereditary ailment—that those with the mutation had a higher risk of getting breast cancer at a younger age and these women had an increased chance of the cancer returning or developing into a different cancer.
Among the 10 women in my family, there have been 12 instances of breast cancer and almost all of them received their initial diagnosis before the age of 50. Growing up with this knowledge and seeing firsthand the often ugly and painful fights against cancer the women in my life battled significantly impacted the way I viewed and considered the role breast cancer would play in my own life.
The Importance of Having Upfront Conversations About Cancer with Loved Ones
I was thankful my mom never shielded me from the realities of cancer and always confided in me as she navigated her own journey as a breast cancer survivor.
Her transparency began when she went through chemotherapy treatments when I was eight years old and extended through my adolescent years as she took various preventative measures through both surgeries and ongoing medical surveillance.
Her candor and my family’s openness with their experiences provided me with the knowledge and confidence I needed to create a new path for my future—one in which I did not have to await my turn to become the next cancer survivor of my family, but one where I could gain back some control of my life as a previvor.
Becoming a Cancer Previvor
A previvor is a person with a family history of cancer that takes action to reduce or eliminate cancer before it is ever detected.
Knowing what my family history likely meant for me never bothered me much, it was the uncertainty of when that I feared the most. So, when I finally made the decision to get genetics testing and confirmed I was BRCA2 positive, I was relieved to find out I could bring the fight to cancer instead of waiting for it to come into my life.
Genetic Testing Should Be a Priority for Women with a Family History of Breast Cancer
Screening for breast cancer can—and should—look different for those with a family history of the cancer, which is why it is so important to learn about your family’s health history and get genetic testing.
Confirming I had the BRCA2 mutation not only improved my care based on my needs with my doctors, but it also provided opportunities to get regular mammograms and tests at a younger age and made it easier to stay up to date on the options available to me.
A common misconception people have with genetics testing is that a positive mutation always equates to a positive diagnosis, but for me, I never intended to let that become an option.
Undergoing Preventative Surgery for Breast Cancer
I decided that I wanted to not only reduce my risk of cancer, but to prevent it through surgery—a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. Knowing my mom was 33 when she received her cancer diagnosis, I always intended to begin my next step as a previvor when I turned 30.
Last year, when the time came to begin engaging my doctors and selecting a surgeon, I felt both ready and nervous. I had spent years mentally preparing myself for the decision but knowing this would be my first major surgery and that I had a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old at home gave me pause.
Additionally, with the pandemic causing many to postpone their elective surgeries, it ended up taking a year of rescheduling and shuffling until I finally had a surgery date.
However, it was not until earlier this year when my husband received a cancer diagnosis of his own and later news that he would need chemotherapy that I really considered putting my own surgery on hold.
In the end, I continued with my planned surgery. Having the knowledge of my family history and fully understanding my risks helped push me to follow through with what I knew was best for me to prevent breast cancer.
From Previvor to Survivor
I became a previvor by choice and a survivor by chance.
After my surgery, my surgeon informed me they found a very small amount of breast cancer in the tissue they removed. Although I knew my prevention journey was not over with my surgery (I would still be at risk for ovarian cancer), this news would again alter the way I approached screening for cancers and ensuring prevention.
Cancer is not a one-size-fits-all disease and there is still so much they are learning about it. When it comes to breast cancer, awareness, surveillance, and prevention can come in multiple forms depending on your genetics and history, which is why it is so important to stay educated and informed.
Amanda joined SWBC in 2019 and serves as the Director of Communications for the Employee Benefits Consulting Group. She leads the communication strategy for the division to support all benefits, wellness and sales initiatives. In her role, she creates and manages campaigns and oversees the design and content of all print and digital communication materials for clients. Amanda brings more than nine years of experience in the communication field, specializing in technical writing, graphic design, and strategy. Her background includes supporting and managing teams that specialize in strategic communication, public affairs, and change management for high-profile public sector projects.