”Genetic testing allowed me to come to a decision I am at peace with, and made it possible to continue to live my life on my own terms.” - Ana Lopez
MK: How old were you when you tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation?
AL: I was 25 years old and working at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center as a research assistant at the time. My two older brothers and I scheduled an appointment with my genetic counselor for testing on September 2015, a few days after my twin sister’s breast cancer diagnosis. I was working at M.D. Anderson during the course of my prophylactic mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries as well. I was blessed to be at the right place during this part of my life.
My sister’s diagnosis was a blow to our family, it was something we didn’t expect at our age. But it wasn’t a complete shock-- My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47. A month after our 17th birthday, four years later, she lost her battle. I remember my sister called me at work the morning she found out what the small lump on her breast was. After her doctor’s appointment, she cried while relaying the news and I was frozen, we couldn’t believe we were going through this again. My sister and I had previously talked on several occasions about genetic testing and discussed our breast cancer risk, but we underestimated the time we had. I didn’t want to waste any more time, so I immediately made an appointment with my genetic counselor.
MK: What was your mindset at diagnosis?
AL: As I waited a few days for my test results, I knew that the results would more than likely come back positive as my sister’s did. Considering my family history-my mom, twin sister, cousins and aunts who have been diagnosed with gynecologic cancers, I wasn’t surprised when the news came back that I, along with my brothers, had the BRCA1 mutation. Of course, I was praying for a different outcome, but I had mentally prepared myself for the results, and I was ready to take action. Looking back, I think I was able to keep a strong and clear head by seeing my sister handle her new reality with strength. She went back to work the morning she called me with the news and she worked every day as a research data coordinator at M.D. Anderson before walking across the campus for her chemo treatments.
I met with my surgical oncologist a few weeks after speaking with my genetic counselor. I discussed my options with Dr. Bedrosian which included increased surveillance and surgery. I could have chosen increased surveillance, but I’ve seen the impact that a BRCA mutation and breast cancer can inflict. I was blessed to have had the opportunity to reduce my breast cancer risk so significantly, a decision that my sister no longer had. I knew that I wanted to take the opportunity that I had been given to take control of my health and my life before I no longer had the choice. So, I underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy in February of 2016 and reconstructive surgery in July of the same year.
MK: How did breast cancer/testing positive for BRCA1 change your life?
AL: My sister and I were accepted to nursing school at UTHealth located across from M.D. Anderson- and we were set to begin in January of 2016 before she was diagnosed. We put nursing school on hold for a few months while my sister completed chemo and a double mastectomy and I completed prophylactic surgery and reconstruction. I am thankful for genetic testing because it allowed me to take back control of my life.
MK: How has this experience awakened you to yourself and your purpose?
AL: Our journey has also reinforced our path to go into nursing. We graduate with our BSN on December 2017 and hope to return to M.D. Anderson and give back the wonderful care that was given to us throughout our journey.
MK: What do you wish you'd know before being diagnosed/testing positive with breast cancer?
AL: I wish I’d know that it is not too early to get genetic testing done in your 20’s.
MK: Tell me about your advocacy work.
AL: I am currently a myCancerConnection One-on-One Support Program volunteer. I speak with others who are going through a similar diagnosis and surgical procedures. I am happy to be available to a younger audience.
MK: If there was one thing you could change about breast cancer and how people view it, what would that be?
AL: I think people may believe that breast cancer happens to older women. But as in my sister’s case, it can happen at as young as 25 years old, as much as it can happen at 52. It can develop in men as well. And, it happens when it happens and to whomever it’s going to happen, young or older. This is why genetic testing is so important. It is important to know your risk, follow the recommended screening schedule and know your body.
MK: Why is it so important to you to support other women with breast cancer?
AL: It’s important to support women with breast cancer because I feel like it’s everyone’s battle until a cure is found.
MK: What would you tell a newly diagnosed young woman?
AL: That it is important to take control and be an advocate for your health. I would say, read books and research articles, network with others going through a similar experience, go to conferences, feel empowered! Surround yourself with a good support system. Share your knowledge and experience with others and encourage family and friends at risk to seek resources and testing.
MK: What one word defines you?