Tag Archives: women

BRCA-negative Women Explore Their Options

Sometimes Jewish women with strong family histories of cancer test negative for BRCA. This great article talks about why testing negative doesn’t always put you in the clear for genetic cancers. Learn more below!



A complicated legacy

My paternal grandmother died of breast cancer when my dad was 16 years old. I am named for her as well as looking like her and even sounding like her. Though we never met, I have always felt connected to her. While in my 20s, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer and through his treatment discovered he was BRCA positive. It all started to make sense. The many women in his family who had breast cancer. His eldest brother who had male breast cancer. A pattern was emerging in our family.

My father urged my sister and I to get tested. She was tested straight away and was negative. Much to the dismay of my family, I declined to be tested because I was already able to get the screening by virtue of my father’s status. What would I do with this information at this stage anyways? I was young, single, childless. Most importantly, I already knew what the result would be. I am named for her. I look like her. I have her voice. I have her blood running through my veins. Her very DNA is encoded into my own.

Ultimately, I was tested once we had our 3 beautiful children. As predicted, I am BRCA+. 1 year after, ovaries come out. 4 years after that, a breast cancer diagnosis while on the wait list for a preventative double mastectomy. Thank G-d, due to screening mammography and MRIs, it was caught early, and I was able to have the double mastectomy and reconstruction right away with no follow-up treatment required.

It has been 6 years since then and now one would think that I am carefree with no need to worry about breast and ovarian cancer again. Unfortunately, I now think about my children. My children who now have a 50% chance of carrying the gene. My children, who will need to make some hard decisions when they are older. My children, who are already asking some tough questions with no easy answers. My son, who is at risk for prostate and breast cancers. My daughters, who are at an even greater risk for breast and ovarian cancers. It will be a long road.

Ginaya Peters, 46, breast cancer survivor, Vancouver, BC

Two phone calls that changed my life forever

In the 1970s, my parental grandmother, then a young woman, was treated for breast cancer and made a full recovery. She died in 2014 having never been tested for the BRCA gene mutation. When she died, I requested to be tested for BRCA through the BC Hereditary Cancer Agency but was denied because no one in my immediate family had had a cancer that would directly link me to the gene.

In December 2017, I received a phone call from my sister. She had joined a study at Women’s College hospital in Toronto that included testing for the BRCA gene mutation. She and was positive for the gene. I didn’t hesitate to register for the study and pay the $250 USD for the test. So, my test came, I spit in the cup, sent it back for testing, and a month later I received a phone call informing me that I was also positive for the gene. In that one phone call, I was told that my chances of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer were extremely high. I was also told that I should make some quick decisions about having more children because screenings and preventable surgeries were now available to me and were recommended immediately. The study also connected me to BC Hereditary Cancer Agency. Decisions were made at home and fortunately, I was pregnant within a month. I had a plan for a salpingo-oophorectomy (a surgery to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes) the following year. While all of this was happening in my life my sister had gone for her first mammogram. It was clear, but in more intensive screening (available to BRCA carriers) found cancer.

I watched my beautiful older sister go through a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. My sister has made a full recovery and we celebrated the end of her chemo with the birth of my child.

I had my salpingo-oophorectomy the day before my sister’s reconstructive surgery. My sister is cancer free and alive from knowing she was BRCA positive and we are eternally grateful for that knowledge. Knowing I’m BRCA positive has afforded me the ability to make life decisions and have preventable surgeries to maintain my health. The knowledge
of being BRCA has been invaluable to my family. I truly believe now that knowledge is power.

by Tovah Carr, Previvor, Vancouver, BC

An ovarian cancer survivor’s story

One in forty??! So many of us… what a hard thing to digest!

My own ovarian cancer was diagnosed almost by mistake. I was referred for a transvaginal ultrasound because of symptoms that turned out to be totally unrelated to the cancer. The radiologist immediately recommended an MRI, which revealed the presence of masses on my ovaries and several other pelvic organs. I was referred to the BC Cancer Agency for an appointment with an oncologist, and was informed that I would undergo surgery in a few weeks. A date was later set.

It all happened really quickly. There was a cancellation, and my surgery was rescheduled. I had no time to mentally prepare for it, which was probably a good thing. My stress level would have been much higher if I had had to wait. The surgeon who called me to discuss what had transpired during surgery mentioned that it was probable that I carried the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, as the type of ovarian cancer that was present in my body was commonly associated with the gene mutation. She expressed surprise at the fact that I knew so much about the BRCA mutations. In fact, I was woefully ignorant. I knew about the risk of breast cancer, and a few women I knew who carried the gene had elected to have prophylactic surgery. I knew nothing about the link to ovarian cancer; in fact, I knew nothing at all about ovarian cancer. I later learned that for carriers of the BRCA mutation, there was an additional risk of pancreatic cancer. I also learned about the link to prostate cancer and breast cancer in men. The learning curve was steep.

Surgery included the removal of some of my pelvic organs. The surgeon also scraped cancer cells from organs which had not been removed. I understood that tests were performed while I was under anaesthetic. The results of these tests determined the course of the surgery and led to the subsequent diagnosis of ovarian cancer. I would have chemotherapy as soon as the incision healed.

A month later, the oncologist who had been assigned to me led me into the lab at BC Cancer Agency, where I would have immediate screening for the BRCA1 and 2 gene mutations. He told me that it would be to my benefit if I was found to be positive, as a trial drug may be available to me after chemotherapy if I carried the gene mutation. The results were made available after 8 weeks, when I was called for an appointment with the BC Cancer Agency’s Hereditary Cancer Program. During the counselling session I was told that I was positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation. I had prepared data regarding deceased family members that I had knowledge of but, like many Jews of European descent, my siblings and I knew very little about family who had perished in the pogroms and the Holocaust. There were no known cases of cancer in my immediate and extended family, other than my brother who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years earlier. I was advised to let all family members know the results of the test. My brother was subsequently tested and found to be BRCA2 positive, and has regular screenings now for breast cancer. Another family member, a second cousin who was tested after I shared my results, was also found to be BRCA positive. During a breast exam that she requested, a small cancer that is difficult to detect was found. It was safely removed.

After 18 weeks of weekly chemotherapy, I made the decision. I would take advantage of the availability of the trial drug, a PARP 3 inhibitor. I started taking it a month after my last treatment. Although there was a possibility that I was to receive a placebo, my blood tests were so obviously affected that I was sure that I had received the trial drug. It took a month for the correct dosage to be determined and I was relieved that I was able to tolerate it. An added benefit was additional screening: frequent blood tests, scans, and doctor’s appointments would be part of my routine. A month later I was informed that the study was “closed,’’ new patients would not be admitted. The drug would be available to patients (who were already in the study) for 3 years. The hope is that the benefits of the drug will be long term.

For me, knowledge is everything. Throughout the process, I found that the more I discovered about the gene and about my condition, the less anxious I became. I was able to trust the medical experts to make the decisions about protocol, to calibrate the exact dosage of chemo that my body could tolerate while destroying the cancer, while I concentrated on getting through the next week, before my next chemotherapy appointment. I was fortunate to have a brilliant and dedicated oncologist, and my care during those months was excellent.

Knowledge about your BRCA status makes it possible to make choices. A young woman who carries this gene may request clinical breast examinations beginning in her twenties. Some experts recommend regular mammograms for young women carrying the BRCA mutation. I know now that ovarian cancer is impossible to detect in the early stages. In my case, I had no symptoms and no reason to suspect that I had the condition. I honestly don’t know if it would have made a difference if I had known I carried the gene. I’m pleased that a family member did benefit from the knowledge of my BRCA status. And I think, that is the point. Individuals may not directly benefit from this knowledge. Family members may, and lives may be saved. This is what makes screening worthwhile. And knowing that one in forty carry this gene will surely be the most powerful motivator for Jewish people of Ashkenazi background to discover their own BRCA status and seek information.

-Anonymous ovarian cancer survivor, Vancouver, BC