In July, 2016, at the ripe old age of 27, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I first noticed a lump in my breast in early June while I was performing a breast self-examination. Initially, I thought it may have been hormonal changes due to my menstrual cycle, but when the lump did not shrink/go away by the beginning of July, I had it examined. At first, my gynecologist thought the lump was a cyst, but he sent me to get a mammogram anyway because of my family history. Within five days of my first visit, and after a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.
Three weeks after my diagnosis, I found out that I am also BRCA1+. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes found in the human body that produce tumor-suppressing proteins. If these genes are altered or mutated, it can stop proteins from being produced, leading to DNA not being repaired properly. Cells are then more likely to develop alterations, which can lead to cancer.
Although everyone has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, not everyone has the genetic mutations that can lead to a higher risk of cancer. BRCA1+ and BRCA2+ individuals are carriers of this genetic mutation. Because this mutation is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, there is a 50% chance that a carrier will pass the mutation on to their child. Contrary to belief, both women AND men can be potential carriers. After I found out that I was BRCA1+, my mom and only sibling (sister) were also tested. My mom decided to get tested before my dad because on my maternal grandmother’s side alone, six of us that have been diagnosed with breast cancer - the youngest at age 25. Like clockwork, three weeks after they were tested, my mom found out she was also BRCA1+, but my sister was negative; a perfect 50% statistic.
The average lifetime risk of developing breast cancer in the average, female population is 12%, or 1 in 8. However, BRCA1+ and BRCA2+ individuals have much higher risks. Their lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 40-85%, which is 3-7 times higher than the average! In addition, carriers also have a significantly increased risk of ovarian cancer as well; 16-44%, whereas the average, female population has roughly, a 2% chance.
Now that my mom and I are aware of our status, we can take more control over our situation. This summer, my mom will be undergoing a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and a salpingo-oophorectomy/hysterectomy. Basically, she’s getting her lady parts taken out. This will significantly decrease her chances of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. Although I have already had a double mastectomy because of my cancer, I, too, will follow in her footsteps by the time I am 35 and have an oophorectomy/hysterectomy.
These statistics are staggering, to say the least. To be honest, they are downright scary. These statistics are exactly why I cannot stress enough how important it is to be tested, especially as a young breast cancer survivor. And if you are in the small percentage of us that test positive, please inform your family; immediate and distant, men and women. YOU could save their life. I firmly believe that being proactive in checking my breasts, early detection, early screenings, and knowing my family history (along with an amazing team of doctors) played a big role in saving my life. Had I have waited even six more months, my story could have been a very different one. I am one in eight, but I am also a survivor.
- Krystle Hensley, Breast Cancer Survivor, Public Health Graduate