Shortly before turning 30, Lauren Garreau found out she carried a BRCA2 genetic mutation. She talks about her family history of cancer and navigating life with a new perspective.
“Back in 2013, whilst living with my parents in Johannesburg, South Africa, I arrived home from work to my mom and dad both looking very serious, worried and upset. My mom had just learned that she had stage 3 breast cancer. She began chemotherapy treatment and had a single mastectomy on the affected breast. Her treatment went well and at the end of a difficult year she had no evidence of disease.
Mom was well on the road to recovery and everything was normal until early 2017, when she started experiencing occasional severe bouts of nausea and excruciating abdominal pain. I was growing concerned and nagged her to see a doctor about this.
A gastroenterologist discovered mom had gallstones and scheduled for her to have her gallbladder removed. The surgery went well but he had found some liquid in her abdomen and had sent it for testing. It turned out to be malignant. We were shocked but so grateful for the gallstones at this point, as without them who knows when the cancer would have been found?
On my mom’s 58th birthday she was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer. She had a complete hysterectomy, debulking surgery and then chemotherapy (Carboplatin and Paclitaxel). The new normal was a life filled with hospital appointments. She lost her hair again and didn’t feel like herself. I felt very unsettled but tried to focus on other things such as my upcoming wedding and new job. However, nothing can distract you enough. Cancer was always lingering at the back of my mind. I hated feeling like there was nothing I could do for the person I loved. The experience definitely taught me that it isn’t just the person diagnosed with cancer that is going through this. It is also my dad, my sisters and me. Friends. Extended family. We are all affected.
Six months later her treatment came to an end. We sat nervously in the waiting room to meet with the oncologist and find out how my mom was doing – there’s a reason they call it ‘scanxiety’. I was with my mom and dad and we all burst into tears of joy upon hearing the news, “Your scans are clear, this is the best outcome we could have hoped for – there is no evidence of disease.”
At her next check-up in February 2018, all was still clear – fantastic news, we could all breathe again and carry on with life! My husband Chris and I had started the process of preparing to emigrate to London; something we had always wanted to do. All was falling into place and we were scheduled to make the big move in May 2018.
"We can make informed decisions for a happy and healthy future.”Lauren Garreau
As my mom had had both breast and ovarian cancer, her oncologist discussed the possibility of her carrying a BRCA gene mutation and set up an appointment with a geneticist. We drew a family tree; mom’s dad had had prostate cancer (although that was not what he passed away from in the end), my mom’s sister, Cindy, had died from multiple myeloma and my mom had now had two separate cancer diagnoses – breast and ovarian. My mom had a blood test and was told that they’d analyse the DNA to find out if there was a genetic mutation.
The test results came back and we, (Mom, Dad, my cousin Charlotte and I), attended the appointment together. Mom had tested positive for a BRCA2 gene mutation. On hearing this, I felt in my heart I would be tested negative so, perhaps naïvely, I wasn’t overly concerned. I was more worried about what it meant for Mom going forward – will the cancer come back? Will there be another form of cancer? Charlotte and I went straight for the blood test after the appointment and the long wait commenced.
It was May and Mom had another check-up scan – all clear again, thank goodness. Soon after that I moved to London with my husband. It was incredibly tough saying goodbye to my parents, especially after all we had been through, and there was a constant worry at the back of my mind of this dreaded disease returning and me not being there for my mom – I was definitely in two minds.
About three weeks after arriving in the UK the geneticist asked for a Skype call to give me my results and I knew the news wasn’t good – surely she would just email me if it was a negative result? Nothing can ever really prepare you and I broke down in tears. My cousin Charlotte also found out that she carried the BRCA2 gene mutation. It was very hard to hear, and my mom was immediately in denial over our results, convinced there must be some mistake.
The next step was for mom to decide what to do about her other breast as she was at very high risk for developing breast cancer again. She made the decision to have a prophylactic single mastectomy, but a pre-surgery CT scan revealed the ovarian cancer had recurred in her peritoneum and it was stage 4. Mom will be having treatment for it for the rest of her life to try and shrink and control the disease rather than get rid of it. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy again (luckily her hair won’t fall out this time at least) but she is still experiencing other side effects like fatigue and mouth sores. We all take it one day at a time…or one scan to the next.
As for my BRCA journey, I unfortunately now need to answer some difficult questions. I’ve just turned 30 and don’t feel ready for children. But I feel like I am living with a ticking time bomb and therefore under pressure to visit this ‘when do we want children?’ question a bit sooner than I had hoped. I will definitely go the route of preventative surgery as soon as my husband and I have completed our family. In the meantime, I have started my screening for breast cancer which includes an annual breast MRI scan. It is also OK to not want to talk about this negative thing in your life constantly, even if people are asking out of concern. I personally prefer to only talk about it all when I want to, as it is nice to be ‘normal’ and talk about things other than cancer.
Before my journey, I had no knowledge of ovarian cancer, its symptoms or BRCA gene mutations. My mom didn’t either, but now my siblings and I do – and we can make informed decisions for a happy and healthy future.”
There is currently no reliable screening method for ovarian cancer, meaning that it's vital that all women are symptom aware.
The early detection of ovarian cancer is one of our major research priorities. Learn more about what we're doing.