My sister’s cancer diagnosis left me scared I’d never see my kids grow up

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are passed down through your parents and they can increase your risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 90%.

My sister’s cancer diagnosis left me scared I’d never see my kids grow up
Kirsty standing in front of a pink bus with 'BooBee' written on her t-shirt
I am lucky to have a very supportive husband who was behind me all the way (Picture: Kirsty Holden)

When my doctor confirmed what I already suspected – that I carried the mutated BRCA1 gene that raised my chances of getting breast and ovarian cancer far above the typical person – I was actually relieved.

The long wait to find out was finally over.

Now I could get on with my plan to remove my breasts and ovaries to protect my future health.

My story had begun a year earlier, when my youngest sister, Carlie, was told the devastating news that she had breast cancer aged just 33.

I’m a scientist by profession and as upset as I was, I couldn’t help but go into analytical mode, immediately thinking back over our family history and joining the dots.

My aunt had breast cancer aged 40 and now my sister… I didn’t know for sure, but I strongly suspected that there was a genetic link.

Carlie lives in New Zealand and it was incredibly difficult for both me and our other sister, Karen, to be so far away from her at such a hard time.

She told us her tumour was triple negative and the only treatment at the time was surgery and chemotherapy. She was upset but managed her treatment with dignity.

Both me and Karen went to see her after her mastectomy, to see how she was and be there for her in person.

Kirsty in a blue dress on the left, next to her sister in a wedding dress and her other sister on the right in a blue dress
Kirsty on the left, next to her sister Carlie and other sister Karen, right (Picture: Kirsty Holden)

But I also desperately wanted her to get checked for the BRCA gene mutation.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are passed down through your parents and they can increase your risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 90%.

I was 38, just about to turn 39, and a busy mum of two. My children were still little – then eight and five – and I knew for their sakes that I had to find out.

Plus, I had a plan. If I tested positive, then I would take immediate action to have a mastectomy, removal of my breasts, and oophorectomy, removal of my ovaries

It was a very pragmatic decision and an easy one for me to make; I wanted to have the best chance of being there to watch my children grow up.

I just knew I had to do everything in my power to make sure I would be here to raise my children.

However, because of the way the family history clinics are run in the UK, I needed confirmation that Carlie carried a mutated gene before I – and Karen – could get screened.

It felt like ages. It took months to get sorted. Eventually, though, Carlie had it confirmed: she carried the BRCA1 mutation. Which meant that we could have it, too.

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From then, the screening process was pretty straightforward. I gave a family medical history and had genetic counselling. 

Counselling is a really important step that helps you talk through your options and explore all the mixed emotions you’re feeling. 

You are asked to consider things like how the surgery will affect your relationships, and if you are in agreement with your partner about the decision. I am lucky to have a very supportive husband who was behind me all the way and I came out of it more resolved than ever to take action.

Finally, I had a blood test and began the wait for my results, which took weeks. I was very anxious, but luckily, my husband, parents and sisters were all there to support me.

Towards the end of 2014, I had an appointment with my genetic counsellor. My husband was sat with me as I found out I had tested positive for the BRCA mutation. 

It turned out, me and my two sisters each had a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation and we’d all got it.

Rotten luck, but I was, as I say, relieved.

Kirsty wearing a Prevent Breast Cancer t-shirt and shorts, standing with her husband. Both have medals around their neck and a race bib
Kirsty and her husband Andrew (Picture: Kirsty Holden)

Immediately I booked in for my preventative surgeries and by the time I was 40, I’d had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.

I was lucky in some respects – I already had my children and I didn’t want to have more babies, so choosing to remove my ovaries wasn’t as difficult a decision as it might otherwise have been.

Soon after I started taking HRT, as removing my ovaries meant that all my oestrogen was taken away, too and I was dropped straight into surgical menopause. Luckily the HRT meant I wasn’t affected too badly.

I told my children why I was undergoing my surgeries and they understood the reasons.  

The following year I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was an emotional time, but I can honestly say it was a huge weight off my mind.

I even opted not to keep my nipples due to the very small chance that breast tissue within that area could develop cancer.

There’s no denying that it’s major surgery and it takes a long time to recover from physically, but emotionally I felt nothing but relief.

As for my sisters, we stuck through it all together and supported each other with advice on different reconstructions.

Carlie went on to have her own preventative surgery by having her other breast removed – it means she’s still here with us and was able to get married and have two beautiful children. 

While Karen finished her family and now has three fabulous sons. Then, she also went on to have a mastectomy and oophorectomy to protect herself, too.

Our risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer is now less than the general population.

A few years later, I began supporting Prevent Breast Cancer.

The charity funds research into finding new genes and genetic fragments that increase people’s risk of breast cancer. The only way we can keep learning more about the causes of breast cancer is through research like theirs.

My sisters and I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to be tested for BRCA mutations and to have surgery that puts us back in control of our lives.

And it brings me some comfort knowing that, one day, should they choose to find out, all of our children will be able to be screened once they turn 18.

I feel so very grateful to have discovered I have the mutation and to have been able to act on it.

It’s given me the freedom to go and live my life, safe in the knowledge that I’ve done all I can to protect myself from breast cancer.

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