January of 2014, I received a phone call I’ll never forget. My mom went silent as soon as I answered. "It's cancer. Stage IV.” I immediately flew home to Texas for my dad’s surgery to remove the softball-sized tumor from his colon and accompanied him to his first chemo treatment. Given my grandmother’s passing from breast cancer in her 50’s, the doctors decided to run a genetic test. That’s when we discovered my sister and I inherited the BRCA1 c.3759_3760del variant from my dad. A few years after my dad’s diagnosis, my grandfather was also diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, and he sadly passed away within a year. When doctors ask if cancer runs in the family, I answer with a resounding “Yes”.
Learning about my family’s BRCA1 mutation came with an overwhelming amount of information, a lot of questions, and an odd feeling of isolation. At the time, BRCA1 genetic risk wasn’t well known within the Latinx community. It wasn’t until I came across an organization called The Breasties that I no longer felt alone. It was through this community that I learned about various screenings and preventive measures I could take as a BRCA1 carrier.
On May 18, 2018, I underwent a preventive double mastectomy. I remember calling my dad the day after my surgery. He was undergoing chemo again as his cancer had returned earlier that year. I delivered the news that pathology came back negative. I could hear the relief in his voice as he said, “Everything will be ok.” Those were his last words to me. That night, my dad’s health took a turn for the worst. He went into the ICU the next day. A week later, my dad was gone…
Making decisions as a BRCA1 carrier isn’t easy but knowing I’m at a higher risk for various cancers has motivated me to be proactive with my health and to share my story with others. While my dad’s siblings are aware of the family’s BRCA1 mutation, few have been tested to see if they inherited it. “I’m getting old, mija. Why bother?” My cousins are aware but have also been hesitant to get tested. Culture has a lot to do with this fear of being tested, but accessibility is also a huge barrier to many within the Latinx community. Ironically, my specific BRCA1 mutation, c.3759_3760del, derives directly out of Mexico, further driving me to continue advocating for my community to learn more about their family histories, especially when it comes to medical history.
I’m very thankful I’ve been able to do things preventively, as I know so many others, many of them friends, didn’t have these options. The circumstances of my experience as a BRCA1 carrier may sound tragic, but I’m grateful knowing my status. Had my dad not been diagnosed with cancer, my family never would’ve known our risk. In a way, my father saved me. And I know everything will be ok.