When we discovered we faced a deadly diagnosis, one thing was for sure… we were going to fight this together.
By Luan, 41, Kim, 37, and Jemma, 33
Luan was 12, her sister Kim, seven and Jemma, just four when their mother Rita died from breast cancer aged just 32.
Years later the girls’ nightmare returned when Luan, now 41, discovered a lump in her breast while taking a shower.
Tests showed that she had breast cancer and in July 2005 she had a lumpectomy followed by a six month course of chemo and four weeks of radiotherapy.
Luan was left exhausted, but thankfully the treatment was successful. But the family’s ordeal was not over.
Further genetic tests showed that Luan and Jemma carried the BRCA1 gene – the main trigger for the disease. It meant there was a 50 per cent chance that Kim would have it too.
“I was with Luan when we found out we had the BRCA1 gene,” remembers youngest sister Jemma, 33. “It was such a shock.”
This meant Jemma had an 85 per cent chance of getting breast cancer.
“I was completely and utterly devastated,” says Jemma. “I just completely broke down at the appointment.
“I’d been preparing for the worst, but secretly hoping for the best. In that instant all my worst suspicions were confirmed.”
Soon middle sister Kim was also tested for the mutation – and a couple of months later she too tested positive for BRCA1. Now all three faced an agonising decision.
“For me it wasn’t even a decision,” says Jemma. “It wasn’t a case of ‘if’ I got cancer it was a case of ‘when’. I didn’t want to just sit and wait for it to happen.
“I knew I wanted to have a double mastectomy, and I knew I wanted it done quickly so I couldn’t dwell on it.”
And so, just eight months after getting her results, in November 2007, Jemma had a preventative double mastectomy to remove both her healthy breasts.
It was a long painful operation, which involved taking muscle from Jemma’s back to build up her new breasts. She was given a reconstruction at the same time.
“To be honest, I don’t know if I would have gone ahead with the op if I hadn’t been offered the reconstruction at the same time,” admits Jemma.
“I know it might sound vain, but as a woman it’s such a huge thing to lose your breasts – but even more so when they’re healthy.
“Friends told me to think of it as just a boob job – but that was easier said than done. I was in agony and covered in scars afterwards.
“Yes, I was given a reconstruction, but it wasn’t like I’d chosen to have new boobs – there was no other option.”
Luan’s surgery followed in March 2008, then Kim had the operation too.
Kim, 37, says: “It was strange that Jemma, the baby sister, went first. It almost felt like it was the wrong way round.
“I was the last one to find out that I have the BRCA1, and I was the last one to have the double mastectomy.
“For me, it was mixed emotions when I found out I had the genetic mutation. If I’d been the only sister not to have it obviously I’d have felt very lucky, but also a bit awkward about the other girls having to go through it without me.
“On the other hand, I knew that if I did have it, at least we’d all be in it together. The whole ordeal has definitely brought us closer together.”
After the death of their mother so tragically at just 32, the girls were all very close growing up, but going through this together has brought them even closer.
Then, just a few years later, the sisters faced a new dilemma. The BRCA1 gene leaves them with a 50 per cent chance of getting ovarian cancer.
They had the possibility of having hysterectomies before they reach 40 to avoid the killer disease.
Luan gave up her chance for a much longed for second child, in order to ensure her first, Nate, 8, had his mum around.
In July 2009 she had her ovaries removed. Although they were found to be healthy, Luan doesn’t regret her decision.
“They were healthy then, but what about the future?” she says. “I wasn’t prepared to wait and see if I developed cancer.”
After having two children, Kim then had a hysterectomy in November 2011.
She says: “I felt so fortunate to be given a choice.
“I’d just like anyone in this situation to know that there is help and support available from BRCA forums and other networks. You don’t have to be alone.”
Now Jemma plans to follow her sisters and have a preventative hysterectomy too.
Jemma says: “After going through this with Luan and Kim, I know that whatever we face in the future, we’ll face it together.”
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