Written By Nicole Katze, MA, Editor and Manager, Content Development
When Laura Martin, of Pennington, N.J., was diagnosed with stage I triple-negative breast cancer six years ago, her sister, Wendy, gave her one small insight: “You will look back on this year and you’ll say, ‘This year sucked.’ But that’s it – it will be a footnote.”
Wendy spoke from experience. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, when Laura was only 20. Wendy’s young age suggested to doctors that the disease might run in the family, so Laura began having regular mammograms and ultrasounds soon after.
No one else in the family was known to have had breast cancer. But over the next 20 years, Wendy had two breast cancer recurrences. Then, the sisters’ 81-year-old aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she developed ovarian cancer a year later.The aunt’s doctors suspected a mutation and suggested genetic testing. She tested negative.
Doctors were still interested in their aunt, though, because of the breast cancer and ovarian cancer happening so closely together. “They asked her if she had any other relatives who might get tested, and she told them about Wendy,” Laura says.
Wendy, then 47, tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, which increases the risk of developing breast, ovarian and other cancers. She shared her results with Laura, and Laura decided to be tested as well. Her results were the same. Both sisters decided to have their ovaries removed in a surgery called oophorectomy to prevent future ovarian cancer, but Wendy discovered during surgery that she already had the disease. Doctors offered Laura a prophylactic mastectomy, removal of her healthy breasts to significantly decrease her risks of developing a future breast cancer, but at age 40, she wasn’t ready to take that step.
“That was my ‘should have, could have, would have,’ moment,” Laura says. “Having my ovaries removed had been a no-brainer since ovarian cancer is so hard to detect until it has spread, but I thought I’d go with increased surveillance to manage the increased breast cancer risk.”
Despite regular screening every six months, alternating between mammograms and MRIs, Laura found a lump herself five years later when her cat walked across her chest one night, and she felt pain. She jokingly calls that her cat scan. In December 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and didn’t hesitate for one minute to choose to have a bilateral mastectomy.
Along with mastectomy, Laura had chemotherapy. But her sister’s advice rang true. By the end of 2007, Laura and her family moved forward – Laura into her position as program coordinator at the Breast Cancer Resource Center. Because she’d left her position at another non-profit organization when she was diagnosed, Laura felt she couldn’t pass on it. Today she works with women and families affected by breast cancer, doing patient intakes, fitting women with wigs and breast prostheses, implementing and overseeing an extensive wellness program for patients and survivors, organizing support groups and private counseling and helping with fundraising events and community outreach.
“Working with BCRC is very rewarding for me. I find inspiration in the other survivors I’m in contact with, and they tell me they find inspiration in me. They are at all different stages of their breast cancer journeys, so I learn from the ones who have gone before me and share with the ones who are just starting out,” says Laura. “It helps a lot of women just diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, too, that I’m on the other end of the line letting them know that not all of the horrible things they’ve heard about triple-negative will happen.”
Yet cancer and its after effects continue to make a significant mark on Laura’s family’s life. Wendy recovered from ovarian cancer, but she later learned she had pancreatic cancer. She lived five years before passing away in October 2011, at the age of 57.
“My sister really was and is an inspiration to me and so many others,” says Laura. “I’m so proud of her and I miss her.”
Laura’s daughter had genetic testing when she was 22 and learned she was positive, like her aunt and mom. She now follows an aggressive monitoring schedule that requires she be checked four times a year, either through an exam or with diagnostic imaging. The family sees knowing about the genetic mutation as a gift.
“We feel knowledge is power. We hope before she needs to do anything, they’ve found a way to prevent genetic breast cancer from even forming. But for now, she knows what she needs to do,” Laura says.