When Louise Birdsall found out she carried a genetic mutation that increased her risk of breast and ovarian cancer, she knew she had to take action.
Louise, from Collingham, has shared her experience with Yorkshire Cancer Research to encourage women with a family history of cancer to request a potentially life-saving test.
The 48-year-old had a strong family history of breast cancer. Her mother, grandmother and great grandmother all had breast or pancreatic cancer.
When Louise was in her twenties she found a lump in her breast. It was removed and tests showed it was benign, meaning it wasn’t cancerous. Following this, she was screened annually through the Family History Breast Team at St James’s University Hospital, Leeds.
Louise said: “The consultants and their teams were brilliant and I felt I was being looked after.”
At the time of Louise’s lumpectomy, BRCA gene mutations had not yet been identified by scientists but following their discovery in the mid-1990s, knowledge of the faults and their link with hereditary cancer became more widespread. Louise was referred to a genetic counsellor after BRCA testing became available through the NHS.
A Yorkshire Cancer Research spokesman said: “BRCA genes are known as tumour suppressor genes. They repair damage in cells and prevent them from growing and dividing too quickly. If these genes don’t work properly, cancer can develop.
“Women with BRCA mutations are significantly more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer than women without the mutations. There is also an increased risk of pancreatic cancer and melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.
“There are a number of options available for women with a positive BRCA result. These include chemoprevention, which involves taking medication to lower the risk of cancer, or preventative surgery which can include a risk-reducing double mastectomy, the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes and sometimes the removal of the uterus (womb).”
When Louise lost both her parents to cancer - her father died in from secondary liver cancer in 2012 and two years later, her mother to secondary brain tumours - consultants requested a BRCA test and referred her to a gynaecological oncologist to discuss screening for ovarian cancer and preventative surgery, which would reduce her risk of both ovarian and breast cancer.
Louise said: “It was so hard losing my parents as I was so close to them and they meant the world to me. I couldn’t stand the thought of being in their position and having to leave my family.
But six months after the death of her mother, Louise was told she still wasn’t eligible for the BRCA test. Louise said: “I saw the gynaecological oncologist regularly after that. I had blood tests and scans to ensure that I didn’t have ovarian cancer.”
In December 2017, it was confirmed by a private company that Louise had the BRCA2 and she underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction in March this year.
Louise added: “Agreeing to surgery wasn’t easy but I had no doubt it was what I had to do.”