Gene testing a valuable tool in fight against breast cancer

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

Mother Dawn Behrman and daughter Nina Tillman can’t imagine life without each other. Nina vividly remembers the day she learned her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Initially I was destroyed,” said Tillman.

“When I first was diagnosed, I was actually on the phone, the pathologist called and I didn’t know how to react. He told me it was cancer, and I had to think for a second and I said, ‘Ok, what do I do next?'” said Dawn.

Determined to remain positive, Dawn underwent a lumpectomy and chemotherapy before her doctor, Denise Johnson Miller, recommended she get tested for BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 mutations.

What are BRCA 1 and 2?

“They are genes that repair double-stranded DNA breaks. We all have little things in life due to environmental effects, and normal BRCA will repair that DNA break. When you have a mutation in that gene, those DNA breaks go unfettered and the cells divide and divide,” said Miller, who serves as medical director of breast surgery at Hackensack Meridian Cancer Care.

Those cells may become cancerous, says Miller. Dawn learned she was positive for BRCA 2. Other family members were tested along with her 34-year-old daughter, Nina.

“When she got the results, I was heartbroken. I prayed all night she would be negative. She was positive, and I think her seeing how I went through it and handled it calmed her,” said Dawn.

Dawn decided to have a double mastectomy. Her fallopian tubes and ovaries were also removed.

“If you do have a prophylactic mastectomy and ovarian removal, we usually recommend you remove the fallopian tubes as well. It reduces your risk of ovarian cancer or any cancer in fallopian tubes by almost 100 percent and for mastectomy, it reduces it 87 to 90 percent,” said Miller.

“It was an easy decision for me to make,” said Nina.

Nina elected to also have a double mastectomy in 2016. The mom of two is grateful she got tested.

“We know now, so I feel like we’ll be ahead of the game when my daughter goes to the obstetrician for the first time and we can monitor her at an early age,” said Nina.

“Knowing that you have breast cancer and getting treatment, and now passing on the knowledge to family is a big relief because now they can have the power and knowledge to move forward and save themselves for their family,” said Dawn.

The New Jersey Department of Health indicates 7,488 women in the state were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.

A BRCA 1 or 2 mutation does not necessarily mean a patient will get cancer says the doctor, but the chance of developing cancer increases substantially.

Dr. Miller says if a patient tests positive for either BRCA 1 or 2, they should meet a breast specialist to explore all options. It doesn’t necessarily mean surgery, but those patients should see their doctor for frequent breast exams and imaging.

As for Nina, she’s happy with the choice she made.

“I’m definitely confident in my decision to move forward in breast cancer prevention,” said Nina.

Dawn is now cancer free.

“I never panicked. I took it one day at a time and I feel more relaxed. I enjoy life so much better — the little things like picking up flowers, cooking food, having tea and chatting,” she said.

The mother and daughter duo look forward to chatting for years to come.