Christen Williams, who you may know as BRCAChatter on YouTube, shares her experience of how she came to find out she carries a BRCA gene mutation.
My mother Pauline was the most beautiful human, inside and out. She used to refer to me as her best friend which I vehemently contested; having your Mum as your best friend is NOT cool. She was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer aged 62, and was laid to rest on her 63rd birthday.
Through her death she has saved me
Cancer is unpredictable and cancer is unexpected… but not in this case. My mother’s cancer could have been prevented, if only we knew. Three weeks before she died she was informed that she carried a BRCA2 gene mutation. This mutation made her more susceptible to ovarian cancer. If she had known, she would have been eligible for a preventative oophorectomy before becoming ill. She would still be pottering round her garden in the sunshine with her cats, singing to herself.
My route to genetic testing
I’ve never been one to sit on my butt and wait. I went straight to a genetic counsellor for testing. “You’ve just lost your Mum, are you ready for this?” Yes, I was (aged 27). Six months after her death I was diagnosed with the same BRCA2 mutation. It was not a shock. I am my mother’s daughter (I had a 50% chance of inheriting the faulty gene). I always saw this diagnosis as a blessing. It meant I have up to 85% chance of developing breast cancer and 30% chance of developing ovarian cancer. Hell no, not me, I am going to do something about this. My mother’s premature death gave me an insatiable urge to live, for myself, and for all her lost years.
My mum always used to say to me, ‘in vulnerability you will find your strength’, and it’s trueChristen Williams
It took three years to decide, but I eventually opted for a preventative mastectomy (if Jolie can do it, so can I) – which would reduce my chances of breast cancer to 2%. My surgeon asked me to consider my priorities in life… “Are your boobs, and body image your biggest priority?” No, they most certainly are not. Being alive, healthy and happy are my priorities; I don’t gain happiness by staring at my boobs all day long. Yes, I loved my boobs, but I loved my life SO much more.
What would your mother say?
My mum always used to say to me, “in vulnerability you will find your strength”, and it’s true. I saw my BRCA diagnosis as a hurdle and my mastectomy as an adventure. I look at my scars and I see my strength. I look at my mutilated chest and feel proud that I am alive. I see beauty in the mirror.
My BRCA mutation sent me on a new journey in life. I was very much alone. No friends had been through this (the death of a mother, let alone a rare genetic diagnosis). I was alone for three years until I found an online BRCA community. Suddenly my path became clear. I needed to help others with their BRCA journeys. I created a YouTube vlog and Instagram channel to reach others, and I am overwhelmed at how many incredible women have reached out for support!.
Sadly, my mastectomy did lead to a relationship breakdown. Here I sit, my world crumbling around me. But hang on, I have been here before. I know this feeling. My response? Every loss is a new opportunity and every heartbreak makes you a stronger version of yourself.
I found a letter on my Mum’s laptop for me after she died. It ends: “Just be aware it has happened and pop it in a balloon and blow it away in the wind. See, it is gone. And here I am, Future Me!”
This is my story so far in memory of my mum, my best friend.
If you are worried about your family history, our Hereditary Cancer Risk Tool is here to help. This simple tool will assess your risk of having inherited a genetic mutation that could increase your risk of developing certain cancers. It's suitable for both men and women.