Paying it Forward

How one woman’s breast cancer journey ultimately saved her family

Breast cancer. It’s incredible how two words can change and save so many lives in an instant.

I never thought I had to worry about it. I didn’t have a family history of cancer, so when I noticed a lump on my left breast three years ago, I thought it was nothing. It didn’t feel completely round, like how I imagined a tumor would feel. Plus, my first mammogram the year before came back normal. My husband and mom weren’t so calm, however, and pushed me to make an appointment immediately.

Two days later, I found myself alone on an ultrasound table while the technician summoned a radiologist to “take a look.” I just knew. It was surreal.

I had a biopsy that same day, and after a long weekend, it was confirmed—cancer.

I was numb. And scared. Not so much for myself, but for my daughters, who were 8 and 13 years old at that point. That weekend was the first time I ever saw my husband cry. I couldn’t even breathe.

The next couple of months were a blur of doctor appointments, scans, tests, meetings and decisions. Then came the curveball: I had tested positive for an abnormal BRCA2 gene. BRCA2 is a normal tumor-suppressing gene, but harmful mutations can lead to cancer. Carrying the mutated gene means there’s a 50- to 70-percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 10- to 20-percent chance of developing ovarian cancer during your lifetime.

In other words, you’re a ticking time bomb.

I scheduled a bilateral mastectomy—removal of both breasts—and never looked back. The numbness and fear turned into strength and determination. I decided I would do anything and everything to win the battles and ultimately the entire war, even if it meant removing every body part at risk.

I was going to be there to see my girls grow up. I had to be.

As I went in for the first of four surgeries, the women in my family began their own battles. We had to learn who else carried this frightening gene. The results shocked us: Not only did my mother show signs of this genetic mutation, but so did her two sisters and my cousin.

My mom immediately underwent a prophylactic hysterectomy to cut her ovarian cancer risk. Cancerous cells were found in samples from her removed fallopian tubes. If she had not had that surgery, she probably would have developed ovarian cancer within the next six months.

My breast cancer had saved her life.

Thankfully, my tumor was Stage 1 and had not spread to my lymph nodes. My oncologist recommended I take tamoxifen, a strong medication, for 10 years to double my chances for non-recurrence to about 94 percent. A month later, I went into surgery to finish my breast reconstruction. Two weeks later, I had a complete hysterectomy.

My family’s courage still astounds me. My mom went through months of chemotherapy and is also taking a long-term cancer medication. Both of my aunts chose to have proactive bilateral mastectomies and hysterectomies. My young cousin underwent a bilateral mastectomy, and a hysterectomy is in her future. These surgeries are long, painful and come with risks. Going through a mastectomy and a hysterectomy, especially at a young age, is more than a physical change. We gave each other the strength to carry on.

Breast cancer is a physical and emotional rollercoaster. When you get off, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Yet the effects stay with you; you’re just not the same person you were before the diagnosis. I learned that life is fragile, and I cherish each and every moment. I’m lucky to be here with my husband and daughters. I’m grateful for my army of true, selfless friends. I have a renewed sense of faith and trust because I know someone was watching over me when I found the lump.

I was meant to warn my family so they could save themselves, and so I could save my best friend, my mom.

How You Can Help

I tested positive for the mutated BRCA2 gene, and I’m here today because of years of cancer research. With more funding, a cure for cancer could happen before it affects my daughters and future generations.

I’m proud to serve on the board of Not My Daughter, Find a Cure Now, an organization of local women that has donated more than $400,000 toward cancer research.

Please join me for our seventh annual Shopping Boutique and Luncheon, Oct. 24 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Marriott Coral Springs Hotel (11775 Heron Bay Blvd.).

Tickets are $75 a person or $100 for VIPink (includes gift).

Proceeds go directly to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale affiliate of Susan G. Komen, other research-based breast cancer nonprofits and a nonprofit support organization. Visit notmydaughterfindacurenow.com for tickets and information.

—Cheryl Luckman-Simmons

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