Sheila: Genetic Testing

Dedicated to tomorrow's generations

Cancer has been a part of my family story for as long as I can remember. My sister Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was only 39 and I was 37. You didn’t hear about early-onset breast cancer in those days … we were shocked. A few years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer and Barbara was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. We had six children between us and it was inconceivable that either of us would die before they were raised. In our next battle, Barbara had a recurrence at age 47 and I was diagnosed with another breast cancer at age 62. We were strong survivors and focused happily on our families. And then the unthinkable happened. My daughter Lisa was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 37 and her prognosis was not good.

Lisa was a fighter. Her spirit and determination amazed even those of us who knew her well. Even when my husband and I resisted, Lisa urged our family to go for genetic counseling. Lisa learned that she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that placed her at high risk to develop both breast and ovarian cancer, and Barbara and I carried it too. The family mystery was solved.

With this information, my other daughters, Debbie and Sandy, and niece Susan all chose to have testing. The bittersweet news was that Debbie carried the mutation, Sandy and Susan did not. Debbie began having close surveillance of her ovaries and decided to have preventive surgery; it was then that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had to undergo chemotherapy, but the information Lisa had passed on likely saved her sister’s life.

After a long fight, Lisa lost her battle with ovarian cancer at age 45. Lisa’s courage made it possible for our family to arm ourselves with the knowledge of genetic testing so that we may change the legacy of cancer in the next generations. And we will.

When my wife was admitted to Yale-New Haven Hospital to give birth, we passed by the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit on the way to labor and delivery. I remember thinking how amazing it was that only four weeks earlier that’s where I had been. Now I was about to see my son being born. It meant a lot to be there to share that moment with my wife, in more ways than one. It was a moment I thought I might never see.

I try to think back to my life before cancer, and it is almost impossible. It changed the way I live each day. Everyday I look at my family, my wife, my two daughters, and our new son Robert, and I am so thankful that I am still here to be a husband and father to them. You have two options when you are faced with cancer, fight or give up, and there was no way I was going to give up, not when I had so much to fight for.