Sixteen. That’s how many cruises Debbie of Connersville and her husband Gary have gone on together, and they’re headed to Bermuda and the Southern Caribbean for their seventeenth this fall. “We love to travel, and we love to cruise. We’ve gone on many just the two of us, but now we cruise with family so it makes it even more special.”
The warmth and graciousness in Debbie’s voice can be heard within the first few seconds she speaks. As a deli manager for 25 years, she’s mastered how to make others feel welcomed and cared for. It’s this same sort of treatment she says she receives from Hendricks Regional Health — and it’s the reason she drives an hour and a half from home to see plastic surgeon Dr. Rachel Scott.
In May 2016, after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, Debbie underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy to minimize her risk for developing breast cancer in the future. She then chose to have breast reconstruction and expects to finish the process after Christmas this year. “I have been fortunate to not have had cancer yet,” she says. That’s because Debbie quickly and courageously took action against the odds.
When a gene is mutated, DNA damage may not be repaired properly, and as a result, cells may be more likely to develop additional genetic alterations that can lead to cancer. These alterations, called BRCA1 and BRCA2, can be passed from a person’s mother or father. Each child of a parent who carries the mutation has a 50 percent chance of inheriting it.
A blood test can be performed to check for these gene mutations, and finding them can help determine a patient’s chances for developing cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, these mutations account for about 20-25 percent of hereditary cancers and about 5-10 percent for all breast cancers. For women especially, BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations pose an increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
As Dr. Scott explains, “People think BRCA is something that’s rare but it’s not. It’s a little frightening how not rare it is.”
History doesn’t have to repeat itself, but for Debbie, “It was never really an ‘if I get cancer’ situation. For me, it was always ‘when.'”
Debbie’s grandfather passed away from prostate cancer. Then in 1972, Debbie’s mother Margery was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. 18 years later, Margery passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 60.
Debbie was just 31 when her mom died. “After that, I started going to checkups, scheduling mammograms, and caring more about my health.”
Discovering her risk
Under the care of Dr. Anita Mazdai at Westside Physicians for Women, Debbie underwent a hysterectomy. It was after a routine mammogram in early 2016 that Dr. Mazdai encouraged her to consider the BRCA test, and she scheduled Debbie to meet with medical oncologist Dr. Sridhar Bolla.
“When I talked to my husband Gary about having the test, he was very negative. Like myself he didn’t know enough about the importance of it. He only saw the cost and didn’t realize the preventative impact it could have. After the test came back positive for BRCA and we spoke with Dr. Bolla, Gary wanted me to have the surgery done right away, and was very thankful I had the test.”
Debbie was prepared for the results to come back positive. “For me, it wasn’t a surprise. I’d watched my family and my mom go through it. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind.” Her results revealed she had a 90 percent chance of developing breast cancer. “That’s why I chose to have the surgery. It didn’t make sense to prolong something we knew would happen, something that if left alone, would only create a long, difficult road ahead.”
The next step was an appointment with Dr. Rachel Scott at Hendricks Regional Health Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Dr. Scott remembers the day she first heard about Debbie: “I was done with my office hours for the day, and Dr. Bolla’s office called saying they had a woman who had driven hours to be there, and asked if it was at all possible if I could see her that day. So I stayed and the rest is history.”
Dr. Scott was very thorough about what the surgery would entail, with implants and expanders ready to show Debbie and Gary. “Debbie’s husband needed that even more than Debbie — the visuals and the reassurance of what was happening.” As Debbie recalls, “Dr. Scott never hurried us. She answered every question and took an endless amount of time to make us feel comfortable. She is an amazing doctor.”
Before surgery, a breast cancer navigator called Debbie to explain all of the steps and answer any last-minute questions. “We talked for an hour and she was so nice and helpful. The day of surgery I was a little apprehensive, but the whole staff at Hendricks was excellent.”
Debbie now visits Dr. Scott once a week for injections to fill the expanders. Soon she will have her last expansion, then surgery to replace the expanders with permanent implants. “Appearance-wise, I look normal. I’ve found when I tell people that I had a double mastectomy their first thought is that I had cancer. When I tell them I didn’t have cancer, they think I haven’t gone through as much. It’s not cancer, but it’s still hard to go through.”
Throughout her journey, Debbie continues to feel blessed by the incredible support of her loving husband, and from a long list of family members and friends, including her sister-in-law Amy who has “been there for me every step of the way.” Amy drives Debbie to and from her appointments each week. Then there’s Diane, Debbie’s best friend of over 30 years, who initially encouraged her to meet with Dr. Bolla and have the surgery. “Diane really pushed me to do this. She saw my mom go through it all and didn’t want me to go through chemo and radiation.”
Debbie is also thankful for the overwhelming support she receives from her coworkers at Marsh Supermarkets. “I know not everyone is lucky enough to have the support that I have.”
Debbie’s advice to those considering the gene testing and surgery? “Definitely take the time to do it. You are doing the right thing, and you’re preventing yourself from going through so much more.”
Debbie continues to keep a warm, positive outlook. She’s quick to share her story in hopes of inspiring people to get tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2. “I have never regretted doing what I’ve done. Technology has come so far. We don’t have a cure, but we have tests that can help.”
If just one person reads this story and takes action, Debbie says she’s accomplished her goal.