LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — I’m knocking on doors again, visiting with breast cancer survivors to hear their stories and find strength for my new battle with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). I was newly diagnosed with MBC in February, after seven years of surviving my first bout with breast cancer.
I recently made a house call in Leavenworth, Kansas, to talk with breast cancer survivor Cheryl Rader, who also survived ovarian cancer. As we talked, Cheryl showed me some of the beautiful quilts she's made as she spoke about how cancer has wounded their family.
“There are five children in my family, and four of us have had cancer,” Cheryl says. “We have lost one sister. My youngest sister was 49 when she died of breast cancer. It had metastasized.”
That’s not all: In 1972, Cheryl’s mother died at age 40 from tumors in her breast and abdomen.
So Cheryl decided it was time to interrupt cancer’s death grip on her family.
Dr. Jennifer Klemp, director of cancer survivorship at the University of Kansas Cancer Center, encouraged Cheryl to take a genetic test because of her strong family history of cancer. Klemp said genetic testing is not new, but the test itself has changed.
“It’s called NGS, or next generation sequencing, and they are a wider net,” Klemp says. “So instead of just looking at BRCA1 and 2, you cast a wide net and you're going to find 50 genes, 100 genes. So really we have the opportunity to look at lots of genes, which we know are related to breast, ovarian, colon, prostate, pancreatic, melanoma and then some.”
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, slightly less than 10% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have the BRCA gene mutation. But Klemp said patients who find out they have the genetic risk for breast cancer can consider important options such as additional screening, surgery and treatment options, and let their relatives know they should also be tested and screened.
“Having the genetic test and having that other breast off, I think that was a key to my survival,” Cheryl says.
She said the test revealed that she had live ovarian cancer cells in her lymph nodes. She had chemotherapy treatments, and scans revealed the ovarian cells disappeared.
Cheryl also believes the test saved her niece, Kari Owings. Because of her aunt’s genetic test, Kari decided to have the genetic test as well. It revealed that she was positive for the BRCA gene.
Kari decided to have a mammogram or an MRI every six months. Seven years after increased screening, doctors found a tiny malignant tumor, stage 0. Kari had a double mastectomy, and today, she’s a two-year breast cancer survivor.
Cheryl says without genetic testing, her niece would probably not have found the cancer at the early stage. Klemp agreed.
“So even if we do find a cancer, it’s usually five to 10 years before they would have ever started screening,” Klemp said. “So we found something at a curable stage, rather than something farther down the road.”
For more information on the next generation sequencing genetic test, visit the University of Kansas Cancer Center.