When did you first become aware of your genetic risk for cancer?
We never not talked about cancer. It was a regular topic of dinner conversation when I was growing up because of the long history of cancer in my family. My paternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 40s. She was the first. Then 11 of her 12 siblings were diagnosed with various types of cancer. Next my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 60s. We also have a history of ovarian cancer, but it's harder to trace because those relatives didn't live as long. With that much cancer happening in one family, you can't help but think it's genetic.
We were always very open about it. My siblings, cousins and I would talk about what we'd do if we were diagnosed. The conversations were quite detailed. We talked about how we'd react, what kind of treatment we would choose and how we'd want to live. We all made a pact that if one of us were diagnosed, we'd fight as hard as we could to beat it.
How did you discover you had cancer?
I started getting annual mammograms at age 30 because of my family history. When I was 44, the radiologist saw something suspicious. After a series of tests and procedures, the diagnosis came back as breast cancer. That was in December 2009. Thank God I was getting screened every year, because the cancer was very fast growing and it wasn't something I could feel.
I'd been preparing myself for a cancer diagnosis all my life but the news still came as a shock. One of the first things I did was meet with genetic counselors at UCSF's Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program. They took an extensive family history, talked with me about the BRCA genes and took a blood sample.
What happened next?
In February 2010, I had my first surgery, a centennial node biopsy. Thank God the biopsy was negative. The cancer hadn't spread. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was an aggressive subtype of breast cancer, called triple negative, so I started chemotherapy a couple of weeks later. It all happened so fast it made my head spin.
After chemotherapy, I had a double mastectomy. The decision wasn't easy. It came out of several what-if discussions with my family. In the end, I didn't want to worry about the cancer coming back in my other breast. I knew I didn't want to go through all this again. In May I had a skin-sparing double mastectomy with tissue expanders. In December 2010 I had surgery to replace the expanders with implants. The following year I had another surgery to fix one breast that "fell to the side" and to reduce the size of the implants. They were way too big!