It was in high school that Lisa Pappas began her breast cancer journey. Although she’s never battled with the disease herself, since learning her family carries the BRCA 1 gene mutation that puts her at high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, she has been on a mission for prevention.
“I was in high school when my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer,” Pappas said. “My family knew something wasn’t right when both of my aunts – my mother’s sisters – also ended up developing breast cancer not long after my mom.”
As reported in the Athens Banner-Herald, Pappas said it was during that time that her mother and aunts decided to go through the process of getting genetic testing completed, which revealed they had the BRCA 1 gene mutation.
“Testing positive for a mutation in one of the breast cancer genes, either BRCA 1 or BRCA 2, means an individual is at much higher risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer,” said Heather Wheatley, a nurse practitioner at Piedmont Physicians Surgical Specialists in Athens. “A positive result means you carry a gene mutation that increases your risk of cancer, but you can work with your doctor to manage that risk.”
Doctors recommended that Pappas and her sister also undergo testing to see if they carry this same gene mutation, after their mother tested positive. However, Pappas was young, and she and her husband were planning on starting a family of their own soon.
“I wasn’t ready to face the results of what a positive test would bring,” Pappas said. “My sister was tested, and her test also showed she had the BRCA 1 mutation; however, she already had kids and was able to go through the surgical steps to protect herself.”
According to Wheatley, there are preventative measures doctors recommend for women who are positive for a BRCA gene mutation.
For most women, an annual mammogram and breast examination may be enough to ensure early detection for breast cancer, but for women at high risk because of family or other factors what is recommended is a more comprehensive early detection program.
“Some women may choose to start breast cancer screening at a younger age and have more frequent screenings, which can increase the chance of detecting breast cancer at an early stage,” said Wheatley, who helps manage Piedmont Athens Regional’s High-Risk Breast Cancer Clinic. “Other women may also decide to receive risk-reducing surgeries, removing the at-risk areas like the breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes.”
Wheatley leads the High-Risk Breast Cancer Program along with Cody Gunn, M.D., breast surgeon at Piedmont Physicians Surgical Specialists in Athens. The High-Risk Breast Cancer Program offers a more comprehensive early detection program to women who are considered at high-risk for developing breast cancer.
It wasn’t until she and her husband were planning for pregnancy that Pappas finally decided to receive the genetic testing. She also tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation.
“Thankfully, I was able to work with Heather and the High-Risk Breast Cancer Clinic until I was ready to take the next steps with surgery,” Pappas said. “They developed a plan specific to me, and I received regular screenings.”
When her son was born, Pappas decided to have a double mastectomy to reduce her risks.
“I think I’ll eventually move forward with the other risk-reducing surgeries, but for now it’s just regular monitoring,” Pappas said. “It’s been great having the High-Risk Breast Cancer Clinic to turn to. There was such a personal touch to the way they cared for me.”
Pappas said she hopes her story encourages others to be proactive about their health, especially if they do have a family history of breast cancer.
For more information about Piedmont Athens Regional’s High-Risk Breast Cancer Clinic, visit piedmont.org.
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