Difficult choices for mother-of-four with cancer gene
Women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes have a 45-65% chance of getting breast cancer by age of 70
Bronwyn Kane: ‘I was shocked when I heard my result was positive but I have never seen it as a life sentence or felt a constant ticking bomb like I’ve heard others say.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
Angelina Jolie made headlines earlier this year when she opted to have a double mastectomy in order to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer. The Hollywood star had discovered that she had inherited the BRCA gene; her mother died in 2007 aged 56 after battles with breast and ovarian cancer .
UK singer Michelle Heaton also underwent the same operation as carriers of the gene can lower their risk of developing breast cancer from 65 per cent to 5 per cent with this preventative surgery.
Although rare – just 5-10 per cent of breast cancer cases are genetic – discovering you have the gene is still a traumatic experience.
“Most recent figures from the National Cancer Registry show that 2,749 people were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. Of these breast cancers, 5-10 per cent are genetic, meaning that the diagnosed have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene,” says Naomi Fitzgibbon, cancer information service manager with the Irish Cancer Society.
“We know that these genes significantly increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Women with these genes have a 45-65 per cent chance of getting breast cancer by the age of 70.
“In Ireland there are approximately 360 women under 50 years who have been identified at high risk of breast cancer because they are carriers of a specific gene.”
Bronwyn Kane (39) is married with four children under the age of eight. She recently discovered she has the BRCA gene after her mother, Miriam, was diagnosed with breast cancer and family history suggested the possibility of a genetic link.
“My mum had breast cancer and a left mastectomy back in 1995 when she was 46 years old,” says the Dublin woman.
“Then my grandmother developed cancer in 2006 when she was 82 and died two years later. Initially they thought it was spinal cancer but shortly before she died they discovered it had originated as breast cancer and had started in the same location as my mum’s – very far back in the breast tissue.”
Due to the similarity between both cancers, Miriam’s consultant suggested she be tested for the BRCA gene. Bronwyn and her siblings went to the meeting with their mother in 2009 and were shocked to discover their mother had the faulty gene.
“Several months after Mum was tested, she was called back and was told she had the BRACA 2 gene,” recalls Bronwyn.
“She was very upset but went ahead and had both ovaries removed and a few months later a right mastectomy on a healthy breast followed by a double reconstruction.
“My siblings and I immediately decided to go for testing. I went on my own and there was no counselling involved at all. I’ve heard that mentioned in the media before, but in my experience, this isn’t part of the process.”
Six weeks later Bronwyn was called in to get her results.
Shocked by result
“I was shocked when I heard my result was positive but I have never seen it as a life sentence or felt a constant ticking bomb like I’ve heard others say.
“I just knew I had a faulty gene which increased my chance of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
“I have no doubt that it’s not my only faulty gene, just the only one I’m fortunate enough to know about. But I was also six months pregnant with my fourth child, Florence, when I found out, so I had other priorities on my mind.”
Bronwyn was the only one of her siblings who inherited the BRCA gene, and she opted to go for a maintenance programme initially as she wasn’t ready for radical surgery.
But as time went by she knew she couldn’t live without knowing if or when the disease would manifest itself, so decided to have surgery on both her ovaries and breasts to dramatically reduce her chances of developing cancer.
“Last summer I had a change of mind after a smear which showed irregular cells. Although the second test was totally clear it was enough to make me realise what I could be facing.”
The mother-of-four spoke to her surgeon who advised her to have her ovaries removed as a matter of urgency – but not ready to take such a radical step, she compromised by having one ovary and her fallopian tubes removed.
“Doctors would have preferred if I had removed both ovaries out but I am not ready to go through menopause yet,” she admits.
“I am just thrilled to have been able to dramatically reduce my risk of ovarian cancer as my fear of this was a lot greater than breast cancer because this was more likely to be detected so I knew my chances of survival would be close to 100 per cent.
“However, ovarian cancer is not known as the silent killer for nothing.
“I am due to have radical breast surgery in January and I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I’m dreading it but I know I can’t ignore the issue.”
“I’m turning 40 next April and I look at my four beautiful children and know I have to do this to make sure I’m around for them in the future. I’m very lucky to have a super husband and family who are all hugely supportive. I also have a good network of friends who have been very patient as I have talked myself in and out of surgery on many occasions.
“But at the end of the day, undergoing surgery means I don’t have to go through what my mother and grandmother did – I’ve had choices and although they were difficult, I’m grateful to have had them.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more information visit the Irish Cancer Society’s website cancer.ie