Photo source: WSAV
Genetics are a risk factor that no one can avoid when it comes to having a higher risk of disease. Genes passed down from parents inform the way that every cell grows and behaves.
Breast cancer is one of the diseases that has a hereditary risk factor. It is estimated that between 5% and 10% of all cases of breast cancer are hereditary, and are caused by abnormal genes that get passed down from a parent to their child.
Cancer is a disease that affects cell growth, and occurs when a mutation or broken string of DNA code causes cells to become malicious and spread faster than other healthy cells. Once the error starts, it replicates over and over again until it spreads all over the body and shuts down critical organ systems. Even if a person beats cancer or hasn’t been diagnosed with cancer yet, the genes that increase risk of cancer can be passed on to a child like any other gene.
Researchers have identified two of the genes that lead to inherited cases of breast cancer. They are called BRCA1 and BRCA2, that is, breast cancer genes 1 and 2, respectively. Everyone possess these genes, and they are responsible for the growth of breast, ovarian, and other normal body cells. When a person has or inherits an abnormal set of BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, the risk of breast cancer increases significantly. It is currently estimated that 1 in every ten cases of breast cancer is related to an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
A family in Baxley, Georgia knows all too well that breast cancer can run in the family.
For Wanda Hutcheson and her two daughters Sandee and Wendy, it has already been a reality. All three women in the family have been diagnosed with, fought, and survived breast cancer. As the saying goes, breast cancer knows no boundaries. The women’s story is a testament to the power of a supporting family and being proactive against cancer.
Genes in the family
When Wanda Foskey was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, she was most likely not worried about the likelihood of her children getting the same disease that she had. The statistics at the time were large enough that the cancer could have been unrelated to a hereditary issue. Approximately one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and not every single case has anything to do with a genetic risk factor.
That being said, once Wanda was diagnosed, there were a few things that she might have been informed about regarding her own cancer. Once a blood relative is diagnosed with breast cancer, it is important for descendants to be proactive in testing themselves for their own cancer. There are several cases which indicate the presence of an abnormal gene that might lead to a significantly higher risk of offspring developing cancer in their lifetimes.
Anyone with blood relatives diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 50 is substantially more likely to have an abnormal breast cancer gene. The same goes for those who have seen both breast and ovarian cancer occur on the same side of a family tree, in either a single person or multiple individuals. Relatives of anyone diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer are at risk. Multiple cancers in the family are a sign of risk, and breast cancer in males is a strong indicator that the family has an abnormal gene as well.
If one member of the family has the abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, that does not necessarily mean that all members of the family will have the same genes. The presence of the gene does have a strong impact on the risk of developing cancer, as much as 80% in those who have one or both abnormal genes. The types of breast cancer coming from the presence of these abnormal genes tends to develop in younger women as opposed to older women, and is more likely to occur in both breasts.
Knowing the signs early on
When Sandee Oxendine first felt the knot on her breast in October 2015, seven years after her mother had battled the cancer, she feared the worst. She hoped that it would go away on its own. Yet after two to three weeks of waiting, the lump showed no signs of going away, and she went in for an ultrasound and biopsy to confirm her fears. She knew that she had breast cancer, and the official diagnosis came through in early December.
She had managed to catch the cancer in stage 2, just as it was beginning to spread to her lymph nodes. Depending on the type of cancer, abnormal cells can spread quickly and aggressively, or can remain in a localized area for a longer period of time. She remained calm and immediately began going in for treatments, but this proved even more difficult for her than it is for most people.
Oxendine was hospitalized because the doctors felt that the chemotherapy was doing more harm than good. They did not allow her to take her final round of chemotherapy, and she lay in the hospital bed doing her best to hold on and recover from the treatment. When it came to thinking of herself, she was able to be strong and keep back tears. The real emotional struggle came whenever she would think of her three sons.
Doctors performed a genetic test on Oxendine while she was in the hospital, and they were able to confirm that she had the BRCA2 gene. Armed with the knowledge that she would be at a higher risk of future cancers, she made the bold decision to opt into a double mastectomy, removing all of the tissue from both breasts in an effort to keep cancer at bay both then and in the future. The procedure was a success, and her cancer went into remission, with a lower chance of returning due to her brave decision.
Passing on the knowledge
The knowledge that she possessed the BRCA2 gene followed Oxendine even after she went into remission. She feared that she had inherited it from her mother, which meant that it was possible that her sister had it too. And if her sister had the abnormal genes, that meant that she was especially at risk for developing breast cancer. Oxendine pushed for her sister, Wendy Hutcheson, to get tested for breast cancer.
Four months after Oxendine’s cancer went into remission, Hutcheson was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. The type of breast cancer that Hutcheson had would have spread quickly and aggressively throughout her body, making its way into stage three or stage four cancer had she not caught it so quickly. Hutcheson credited her sister and best friend for insisting that she go in for a mammogram to be screened for the cancer.
Hutcheson followed her sister’s example and also opted into the double mastectomy. The surgery proved successful for her as well, and the entire family came around her, reeling from the reality of two cancer diagnoses in one year. Wanda, the mother, was particularly affected by the news. She said that “it’s terrible to see your children have anything. It hurts just as much when they’re older as it does when they’re young.”
Hutcheson’s cancer went into remission, and the three women celebrated each surviving the cancer in their own time. Though the hope that no one else in their family will be diagnosed, they know that the abnormal gene is being carried and potentially passed onto everyone in their family. Hutcheson has planned genetic testing for her 17-year old daughter, and will be proactive about finding potential cancers before they can spread. The message that all three women send is along these lines: they encourage every woman to go in for mammograms and breast cancer, because the longer you wait, the less likely you are to survive the terrible disease.