For Beth Vanderwalker, having preventative surgery for breast and ovarian cancer was a fairly easy decision.
“I have had grandmothers, aunts and cousins all diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer,” said Vanderwalker, 43.
Last year, as her cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer, Vanderwalker of Fort Mill learned that the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City was researching her family’s genetics in relation to hereditary cancer.
“I made the decision to find out if I carried the breast cancer gene,” she said.
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The BRCA genes (BRCA-1 and BRCA-2) produce tumor suppressor proteins, which repair damaged DNA and ensure the stability of a cell’s genetic material. A mutation in one of these genes means damage may not be repaired properly, allowing cells to develop alterations that could lead to cancer.
If a woman inherits a mutation in the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene, her risks of cancer are greatly increased, from 12 percent to 55 percent for breast cancer and from 1.3 percent to 39 percent for ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society website.
Vanderwalker met with a genetic counselor at the Huntsman Cancer Center and had bloodwork done last November. One month later, she learned she was positive for the BRCA-1 gene.
“I was told in my lifetime, I had an 80 percent risk of having breast cancer and a 60 percent chance of having ovarian cancer,” she said. “To be honest, I was not surprised. However, it was still a hit-in-the-gut feeling. It felt like a ticking time bomb and it was no longer a matter of if I would cancer but when.”
On April 2, Vanderwalker had a prophylactic mastectomy, a preventative removal of the breasts, and an oophorectomy, removal of the ovaries.
“This has not been an easy path,” she said. “I have had complications, am in surgically-induced menopause and have more surgeries for reconstruction in my future.”
But Vanderwalker points out the rewards as well.
“I have had an amazing support team, including my husband, family and the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte. I choose to be close to home for my surgeries and have received amazing care,” she said. “The biggest reward though is that my risk is now less than 1 percent for both cancers.”
Being positive for the BRCA-1 gene also gives her children a 50 percent risk of having the gene. Her oldest daughter, who is 21, was already tested and is negative. Vanderwalker said her other children will choose whether they want to be tested when they are older.
“I know that preventative surgery isn’t a choice for everyone,” she said. “Many people say it is an extreme action for a diagnosis you have not yet received. (But) when I weighed my options, it was the best choice for me.”
Another option for those who test positive for the gene is to have frequent check-ups in hopes of early detection.
“As a mom, I want to set the example of taking control of your health and making the best decisions for you individually, while also supporting other people’s decisions to do what is best for them,” she said. “I saw my mom fight cancer and lose; I believe she would be happy this is now an option for her daughter and granddaughters.”