By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
Twice over, Linda Townsend fought cancer and won.
In 2006, the New Albany resident, following her yearly mammogram, was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. After removing the BB-sized mass using a lumpectomy, doctors found a rare occurrence, an unrelated malignancy in her ovaries five years later. On that January day, Townsend joined the only 8 percent of all cancer survivors who, according to a 2007 study, will develop a second separate cancer during their lifetime.
Unbeknownst to Townsend, it wasn’t just a chance occurrence that she developed those two different kinds of cancer. A test would later confirm heredity played a part. At the age of 55, her mother had died from ovarian cancer. Through her female descendants, there was now a possibility that she, too, had inadvertently passed down BRCA 2, a mutated gene, to her offspring.
“My biggest thing was that I have a daughter and two granddaughters. And I was concerned. So we were able to get that test done and my daughter is negative so I don’t have to worry about them ever getting breast cancer from a genetic thing,” Townsend said. “That’s the best news I can have.”
According to the American Cancer Society, in the general population, women have about a 12 percent chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes. If the BRCA 2, or a similar genetic abnormality called BRCA 1, is present, the likelihood of getting breast cancer before the age of 70 increases to between 45 and 65 percent. Ovarian cancer risk also rises with either mutation.
Roughly 2 percent of Americans carry the gene. If a mother or father has BRCA 1 or BRCA 2, regardless of whether cancer ever occurs, either affected parent has a 50 percent chance of passing the mutation on to their offspring.
Testing for the gene is relatively easy, although insurance companies do vary in covering the procedure. A lab tech collects a sample of the patient’s DNA through either a blood draw or saliva swab, and then sends it off for analysis. Results normally are returned within a month.
“If you have a family history, be proactive,” Townsend said. “It’s a swab of the cheek or it’s a blood test, whichever way you want to do it. Get the test done. It’s worth whatever it costs just for peace of mind.”
For Townsend, once the test confirmed that she was positive for BRCA 2, other considerations needed to be made. With a high breast cancer reoccurrence rate, women with the gene can choose to take a more prophylactic approach to their health. Townsend decided to undergo a double mastectomy to lessen those odds that the cancer would return.
“If you have the gene and don’t go proactive your chances of breast cancer reoccurring is close to 90 percent,” she said. “Now [with the surgery], it’s down to 7 percent, which is what the normal population is. That’s not a choice. That is, you do it and you take care of everything. My family is important to me.”
With a heightened peace of mind, Townsend now tries to help others cope with their illness. During her own diagnosis, the 60-year-old heard incredible stories of hope and perseverance. Colleagues and friends — some of which had been cancer free for more than 50 years — told her of their battles.
“Breast cancer is tough. It’s tough to hear that ‘C’ word. But there are people out there that will help you no matter what you do,” she said. “All of us that have gone through it are willing to talk and help you anyway we can.”
Through it all, Townsend’s struggles changed her for the better, she said. Having a loving family made things easier. At times, seeing their reactions to her suffering affected her more than the treatment itself. But as she moves forward to the next stage of her life, these lessons of love will go with her.
“Next up for me is to enjoy life. Take it one day at a time, one hour at a time. Every day is a gift. It’s a gift from God,” she said. “I don’t know any negatives from this. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown up a lot. I’ve become a stronger person.”