It is that time of year again. The weather is turning colder, the leaves are beginning to change, Halloween costumes are being picked out, and there is Pink everywhere you turn. Yesterday as I was taking my daughter to the park I drove by a large piece of plywood with a painted pink pig on it, 20 or more pink painted pumpkins, and breast cancer ribbons on the lawn of a local realty company. I am sure this serves some purpose, but it was lost on me.
October for me is always bittersweet. While I welcome the awareness, and messages of the importance of early detection, I am constantly reminded of the disease that took my mother’s life 13 years ago and of my own battle with breast cancer 2 years ago.
At the age of 32 I was diagnosed with stage II B triple negative breast cancer. Life was good, my husband and I had been married for 8 years, my daughter was 4 months old and my son was a few months shy of his 3rd birthday. It was a Friday night and the news sent me crashing to the floor. A few days prior to my diagnosis my obgyn told me I was too young to have breast cancer. Although I knew that to be untrue, I still found comfort in his words and convinced myself it was a clogged milk duct.
Two weeks later I underwent a bilateral mastectomy.
Four weeks after surgery, I began my five month chemotherapy regiment. At the end of my chemo treatment, I had genetic testing to see if I carried the BRCA mutation (a.k.a the breast and ovarian cancer gene), I was in fact positive for the gene mutation. For some reason I was surprised by this news, even with my strong family history. The reality then struck me……my children now have a 50% chance of inheriting the BRCA mutation, putting them both at risk for breast cancer and other cancers including prostate and ovarian.
Knowledge is power.
Although my cancer journey has been difficult, and it was very difficult to hear that my children and sisters could be at high risk, the knowledge that I am a carrier of the BRCA mutation has helped us to stay one step ahead of cancer. Last year I had my ovaries removed to eliminate the risk of ovarian cancer. I believe firmly that if my mother had that knowledge, treatment would have been more aggressive and she would have won her battle with breast cancer, before it became metastatic. I also believe that if I had the knowledge prior to my diagnosis, I would have been able to avoid my cancer diagnosis through a prophylactic mastectomy or at least been able to catch it earlier through increased screening.
However, I do not live in the past. I have embraced my cancer journey and all that has come with it. Having this knowledge will benefit my sisters and my children most of all. We make life choices that promote health and wellness and I feel that is a gift I can give my children. One day, they will be armed with the knowledge they will need to make informed decisions as they become old enough to have the genetic testing.
FORCE, Facing our Risk Empowered, is a national non-profit organization dedicated to supporting families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer through education, support, and resources. I had heard about the genetic test in my twenties, but I did not know that if I tested positive I could have up to an 85% risk of developing the disease and a 40% risk of developing ovarian cancer. I did not know that I could have had a prophylactic mastectomy that would lower my lifetime breast cancer risk to less than the national average, which is currently 12%.
I am now the Raleigh, NC area FORCE Outreach Coordinator and we are hosting our first meeting next week. I am very excited to help bring support and education to families affected by hereditary breast cancer. We need to be our biggest advocates and doctors need to get the word out on genetic testing and how it can save lives.
Pink-Tober is in full swing and I hope that we can ignore the commercialism of it (and the giant pink pigs) and focus on its real purpose. Early detection saves lives! If you have a family history, please speak with a local genetic counselor. If you notice a lump, or any changes in your breasts, get it checked out and don’t allow your concerns to be dismissed by your doctors. Too many of our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and daughters are losing their battle to this terrible disease.
Until there is a cure, we need to focus on education and surveillance.
To find out more about FORCE and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer please go to http://www.facingourrisk.org/
To find out more about breast cancer in young women you can go to
Click here to see the risk factors for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer-brochures-family-history
Katerina Gmitter is a mom to Nathaniel, 5 and Lillian,3 and two labs Sasha and Dakota. Katerina is a NJ native and recently relocated to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She recently helped to start a young survivor breast cancer support group at UNC. Katerina is happiest when enjoying the fresh air with her family, especially at the beach. She is passionate about nutrition and health. Katerina feels so fortunate for every day that she gets to spend with her husband and children. Every day is a gift.You can read more about Katerina here