HealthCheck

Difficult choices for families with BRCA gene

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

It is called the BRCA gene, and women with it have a 50 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer.

This spring when Angelina Jolie announced she underwent a preventive mastectomy because she is a carrier, it unleashed a wave of awareness on the risks and options women like her face.

To watch Chris Prendergast with her daughter and sisters, you would never guess the nightmare they've lived. It started with her sister, Helen.

Chris recalls, "About 11 years ago, shortly before her 40th birthday, had a mammogram, was diagnosed with ductile breast cancer."

She had surgery and radiation, then 4 years ago was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Helen Wass says, "It's always like a little surreal, like this actually happened, you know?"

Two aunts and a grandmother also had breast cancer. So the sisters got tested for the BRCA gene.

"And we all tested positive," says Chris.

Only 1 in 100 people has the BRCA gene, but those who do carry an enormous risk of developing breast cancer.

Dr. Christopher Pezzi, a surgical oncologist at Abington Memorial Hospital, says, "The options really come down to two main approaches: One is a very aggressive screening to catch breast cancer earlier if and when it develops, and the other would be prophylactic surgery."

When yet another sister was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 years ago, Chris attacked her risk head on with a bilateral mastectomy.

"Because I knew my sister, after having to go through chemo, was going to have to go through this surgery and I wanted to be able to show her it was going to be ok," Chris says.

But her 24 year old daughter, Cait, who also tested positive for the gene, opted for the other route - aggressively watching and waiting.

She explains her thinking, "I guess I knew I didn't want to rush into a surgery right away because of being so young."

For now, Cait will get an MRI and an annual breast exam. At 30, she'll start getting mammograms.

And she is organizing a team for Montgomery County's Making Strides Walk on October 26th to raise awareness and money for research.

"I want to be right there in the fight," she says.

Doctors say anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer should consider getting tested.

You can help your family and others beat the odds of breast cancer by joining the a href=http://makingstrides.acsevents.org/site/PageServer?pagename=MSABC_FY13_National_StateEventListing"target="_blank">Making Strides walk this Saturday.

It steps off at 8:00 a.m. at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park.

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