Cheating Cancer One Body Part at a Time

How many surrendered body parts does it take to truly cheat cancer by BRCA mutation?  4 and counting….

A majority of women who test positive for a BRCA mutation view prophylactic mastectomy as the most effective strategy for reducing breast cancer risk.  Take out the ovaries too and we BRCA carriers reduce our risk of ovarian cancer from as high as 40 percent to something much closer to the general population average of 1.4 percent.  Ten years ago, when genetic testing for BRCA mutations was a relatively new option, the decision I faced seemed pretty cut and dry.  Keep the breasts and ovaries and very likely develop breast and/or ovarian cancer, or surrender some body parts and live a cancer-free life.  If only genetic mutations were so simple.  Since making that decision, science has had a lot more to say, mostly in the form of questions.


In addition to breasts and ovaries, BRCA mutations may also increase a woman’s risk of developing melanoma, cervical, uterine, pancreatic, stomach, gallbladder, and bile duct cancers.  For the most part, medical researchers don’t know just how much BRCA mutations increase our risk of all these other cancers.  So what does a BRCA carrier do?  Wait?  Watch?  Push “it” out of our minds?  Keep “it” at bay with hope?  Dig in and search for answers?  Expel organs?


It depends.  Anywhere from all-of-the-above, to none-of-the-above, and everything in between, and all in one family.  As siblings, we may share genes, but our responses to our genes are very much individual.  When and where does it stop?  Unfortunately for my family, not at our breasts and ovaries, not for at least 2 of us, and not at breast cancer, not for at least 1 of us.


As BRCA mutation carriers, we have a lot to be grateful for.  We’ve beat a lot of odds, and yet such appreciation comes with a substantial burden, the burden of trading in body parts for a pass on cancer.  I just hope the tab is finally paid in full.


How do you feel about prophylactic risk-reducing surgeries for the purpose of reducing cancer risk?  Does it surprise you just how many women (some of them so very young) undergo prophylactic mastectomies these days?  Do you think this is a positive trend, negative, not sure?


Susan Beausang,


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