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February is known for Valentine’s Day, July for Independence Day, and October for breast cancer awareness.
One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime – an alarming statistic. We all know someone who has been affected and we have a responsibility to do all we can to protect ourselves, our families and our community from this illness.
Breast cancer is not just a women’s disease. Although rare, men can and do develop breast cancer. Men with family histories of breast cancer can be at an elevated risk for prostate, colon, and pancreatic cancers, among others. As we have come to find out, cancer does not discriminate by age, gender, or body part.
As a former cardiovascular nurse, I can tell you good health starts at home. It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising, limiting alcohol and eliminating tobacco use. It is important to “know your normal” with monthly self-exams and annual wellness exams.
But lifestyle is not the only factor. Family history and genetics also play critical roles. One person specifically comes to mind, Brandi Preston, a member of my staff. At age 22, she had a preventative mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer, a risk that was estimated to be as high as 87% because of a BRCA mutation her family carries.
Brandi’s mother, Omaha Police Officer Kamie Preston was only 35 years old when she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. Brandi spent many summers babysitting her brother Ben and sister Bailey in hospital waiting rooms as their mother underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It was in those hospital rooms Brandi learned about the genetic mutation her mother carried, a mutation she had a 50/50 chance of also having.
As the cancer progressed, Kamie began to prepare her children for life without her. In addition to a mother’s typical expectations for going to college and looking out for each other, Kamie asked each of her children to learn their risk, to be proactive with their health rather than reactive.
Kamie passed away on July 27, 2005. She was 40 years old, her children only 14, 13, and 9 years old. Since then, Brandi and her brother Ben have fulfilled the promise they made at their mother’s bedside. On their 19th birthdays they each had genetic testing and learned that they both carry the cancer-causing, genetic mutation.
“BRCA has been a gift, although not wrapped very beautifully; it has given me the ability to make informed decisions about my body and knowing my BRCA status saved my life,” said Brandi.
When I think about Brandi, I cannot help but take great pride that she “knows her risk” thanks to groundbreaking research conducted right here in Omaha. Creighton University’s Dr. Henry Lynch has been studying cancer genetics since the 1960’s. He was instrumental in identifying the breast cancer mutations and a series of colon cancer mutations that bear his name, Lynch Syndrome.
When high-risk patients like Brandi know their risk, they can take preventive measures, including surgery. They can have frequent screenings to ensure early detection. Should cancer develop, targeted therapies can be used for effective treatment.
Advancements like these are saving lives around the world, and it all started right here in Omaha. I believe we will continue to make groundbreaking discoveries with our top-notch medical training facilities and the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at UNMC, set to open in 2017.
This October, wear your pink proudly, but also make it a priority to reassess your lifestyle, schedule your routine check-ups, and gather your family history.