Facing the Risks of Hereditary Cancer

By Briana Vannozzi

“When I was in middle school my mom was diagnosed. She was diagnosed at 34,” said Catherine Whitley.

“My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1961 and subsequently died in 1967,” said Rona Greenberg.

Many of the stories start the same way but each journey takes its own twists and turns, uniting families facing the risks of hereditary cancer.

“Her mutation is in the BRCA genes. People who have mutations in BRCA genes have a hereditary risk for both breast and ovarian cancer,” said Melanie Corbman, genetics counselor at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

The BRCA 1 gene mutation puts women, like Catherine Whitley, at an 85 percent greater risk for breast cancer and a 50 percent higher chance for ovarian cancer.

“My first surgery was in March of 2011, and that was a total hysterectomy. I woke up from that with, ‘You have cancer,’” she said.

Catherine carried the gene, but waited nearly a dozen years after her mother’s death to get tested. Something she hopes to prevent for her 19-year-old daughter Chloe, who may be positive too.

“We’ve been talking with her doctors for a few years now about when the right time is. They said 25 originally,” Catherine said.

“One of the myths about hereditary cancer is that only women can pass it along and the fact is that both men and women can have the gene mutation and both men and women can pass it along,” said Dave Bushman.

Bushman did pass it along to his daughter. His mother and both her sisters died of cancer caused by the mutation at young ages, so his daughter wasted no time.

“She took charge and made her decisions on how she wanted to handle it, had a prophylactic double mastectomy a prophylactic  hysterectomy” said Jessie Bushman.

“It’s horrible for a young woman to go through dramatic menopause at a young age, but then again the other side of the coin is they stay alive,” Rona Greenberg said.

Greenberg, along with the help of the Bushmans, runs the New Jersey chapter of FORCE.

“FORCE stands for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered and is a support group,” Greenberg said.

The non-profit also holds conventions and most importantly, a shoulder for families faced with these tough decisions.

“I was kind of freaked out knowing that I had that in my family. Then when I found out about the genes that I can be tested for I felt a little better knowing there was something I could do about it,” Chloe Whitley said.

that just happen to that person at that time in their life,” Corbman said.

In fact, it’s about 90 percent of all cancers so FORCE wants to help those patients too. Research is a big part of the group’s focus. Twenty-five genes are now eligible for testing.

It’s important to note that every person carries the BRCA gene, but not everyone has the mutation. Doctors recommend that both women and men with family histories of early cancer get tested by age 25, and follow up with regular screenings.