Because every disease needs a celebrity face to help raise awareness and lots of moolah, I have decided the actress Christina Applegate fits the bill nicely. Never mind that she has her own life, career, family, and a foundation that helps women at high risk for breast cancer get MRI scans they could not otherwise afford. She’s a busy lady.
Even if she chooses not to accept my nomination as BRCA spokeswoman, her story and mine are a good illustration of how things changed in the world of BRCA testing in the decade between our diagnoses. Christina had early stage breast cancer in 2008 at the age of 36. My diagnosis had similarities, my age identical, but my cancer adventures started ten years earlier than the delightful Ms. Applegate.
Tests for the gene mutations that increase risk of breast/ovarian cancers have only been around since the mid 1990’s. In 1998 when I found myself with a tumor almost the size of a golf ball in my left breast, the BRCA test was still considered experimental, was not covered by insurance, nor widely recommended by most doctors in the cancer community. I had no history of breast or ovarian cancer in my family at that time.
In 2008 when Christina Applegate learned she had cancer, her tumor was detected by a breast MRI, now the gold standard for high-risk women, especially those like Christina with a family history and dense breast tissue that is more difficult to image with traditional mammography techniques.
Not only did Christina receive MRI screening that detected early stage cancer, BRCA testing was part of her workup. Why? The rules for who should be tested and whether insurance has to cover the cost have changed.
Why is this a big, fat, hairy deal?
A positive BRCA test is a huge factor in the difficult decisions women face about cancer treatment. Had I known in 1998 that I was BRCA1 positive, my surgery, chemo, radiation and follow-up choices would all have been quite different. I would not be where I am today – recovering from a complicated double mastectomy, facing more reconstruction surgery, hoping like crazy that I have not waited too long to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes.
Dumb luck. In my opinion, that is the main reason I am still alive. Hey, I’ll take it. I am still here to kvetch. Cancer has not returned to bite me again, at least not yet. In the ensuing years since I had breast cancer, my family has lost three members to various forms of cancer. One has endured the hell of life with ovarian cancer.
Is awareness of hereditary cancer important? It is to me. It is to Christina Applegate. It should be to the one in eight hundred people that scientists estimate carry this life-threatening genetic disorder.