Preventative Cancer Surgery: One Woman's Story

<p>Barbara May with her mother Evelyn, and daughter Ashley</p>

Barbara May with her mother Evelyn, and daughter Ashley

<p>Barbara May</p>

Barbara May

It's an agonizing decision.  Women who must decide whether or not to have their breasts surgically removed to reduce their risk of cancer.

Yesterday, actresss Angelina Jolie became part of that medical trend when she disclosed she had a preventative double mastectomy in April.

These preventative surgeries are necessary because some women carry a gene that can be mutated and makes them up to 87% more likely of developing breast or other types of cancers in the future.

In our area, Pasco resident Barbara May carries the same gene which prompted Jolie to have surgery.

So she made the tough decision to be pro-active about her medical  situation.

"I went pretty numb," said May.

The 40-year-old said she discovered through her medical specialists that she carried the mutated gene last June and had a 90-% chance of getting breast cancer before the age of 50.

"At first because I was in a kind of disbelief.. you're thinking more about the fear factor," said May.

She says genetics make it impossible for her to ignore the cancer markers.  Her grandmother Maxine had breast cancer at 40, her mother, Evelyn at 60. 

For May and her younger sister Kathy, it appeared the big "c" was inevitable.

"We had always heard that some of the breast cancers were genetically passed down and so we were both kind of waiting for that day to happen," said May.

Breast surgeon Dr. Laurie Evans says fear plays a big role in the cancer process, but knowing your options early helps.

"Having to look over your shoulder or wonder what will happen next is something that makes people fearful, but information is power," said Evans.

The gene mutation called BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 is not common.

But genetic counselor Sarah Hall says the risk of getting breast cancer for those who carry the mutated gene rises to 65% or more.

"It's a highly penetrant cancer syndrome. If you have a mutation in one of these genes, your risk for getting one of these cancers is really high, unless you're doing preventative therapies, and that includes surgery," said Hall.

May opted for exactly that.  

"You trust the research, you trust the medical professionals. I would reach out to people who'd been through it. And eventually I started to learn that it was going to be okay," said May.

In August last year she had an oophorectomy to remover her ovaries, a hysterectomy to remover her uterus.  In October she had a double mastectomy.

"This huge burden has been lifted off of me. I'm not wondering every day - is this the mammogram they're going to find something? Is this the one that will end my life?" said May.

Dr. Evans says May's attitude is key to living without fear.

"I go back to the whole -- knowlege is power -- thing and being aware of what your reality is.

May took charge of her reality, and knows she made the right decision for her.

"In the end I never heard from a woman [who had the surgery] that said it wasn't worth it, and that they wish they hadn't," smiles May.

The risk factor for those who carry BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 decreases to about five percent after surgery.    

Insurers cover mastectomy surgeries for women who have BRCA mutations or relatives with early-onset breast cancer.  A federal law from 1998 also requires insurers to cover reconstructive surgery after mastectomy.