Cambridgeshire family carrying faulty gene that increases risk of breast cancer share their story ahead of World Cancer Day
PUBLISHED: 11:56 24 January 2020 | UPDATED: 11:56 24 January 2020
© 2013 Mark Hewlett
Two sisters from Littleport and Haddenham who carry a faulty gene that increases the risk of ovarian and breast cancer are urging people to raise money for Cancer Research UK by wearing its ‘unity band’.
Sisters Debbie Cross, 64, and Gail Ashman, 66, were diagnosed with breast cancer 25 years apart and now Debbie's daughter, Rebecca, 37, has found out she has inherited the faulty BRCA1 gene.
Debbie, who retired as an IT Administrator earlier this year, was treated at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge where she took part in the personalised breast cancer programme, which aims to improve early diagnosis and tailor treatment.
In October 2016 Debbie discovered a lump on her left breast. She was fast-tracked to Addenbrooke's and diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.
She said: "It all happened so quickly. I didn't tell anyone I had a lump as I just thought I must get on with this, but when I got home knowing that I had cancer the reality of my diagnosis hit me, and I knew that my life would never be the same."
Just as Debbie was trying to come to terms with her own diagnosis, she was told that doctors had discovered she was carrying the BRCA1 gene fault and her family could also have an increased risk of getting cancer.
"Being told you have breast cancer is a lot to take in, but I also had to tell my family that they might also be carrying the gene and that was the hardest part.
"It was the worst day of my life when I had to sit my daughter down and tell her she needed to be tested.
"The only thing that kept me going is knowing cancer treatment has evolved so much in the past 25 years since my sister Gail was treated and survival rates have improved so much."
She added: "My mother, Iris, died from ovarian cancer in 1994 but none of us knew at the time that we all had an increased risk of getting cancer and were carrying the faulty gene."
Debbie's sister, Gail, who only found out she was also carrying the same gene mutation after Debbie told her to get herself retested, supported Debbie through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiotherapy and further surgery.
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She said: "When I had breast cancer things were very different to how they are now. There was no specialist care like the personalised breast cancer programme and the outlook was not as good as it is today.
"I had a double mastectomy and radiotherapy so I knew what Debbie was going through. I talked with my sister about our treatment and we stayed positive, it was something as a family we had to get through together."
Now the two sisters are supporting Debbie's daughter, Rebecca, who has opted for a double mastectomy after discovering she also carries the faulty BRCA1 gene.
Rebecca said: "As a family we have been through so much but it has also brought us closer and we are there to support each other.
"Knowing what my mum and aunt have been through has helped me make some difficult choices and it has also helped me put things into perspective.
"My whole family and friends have been very supportive and helped me enormously. This is not about me having cancer, it's about making informed decisions with the most up-to-date information.
"When I heard there was a high chance that I will get cancer I knew I had to do something about it. A lot of people are not told about their cancer risk, but because of my family history I was given the facts.
"For me it's about prevention and not assuming the worst. Surgery is something positive that I can do, and for that, I am grateful."
Up to 60 per cent of women who carry a BRCA1 mutation will develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime, compared to just two per cent of the general population, and up to 90 per cent will develop breast cancer.
Debbie, Gail and Rebecca are urging people to wear Cancer Research UK's brightly coloured 'unity band' to show solidarity with other people diagnosed with cancer.
The band is available in three different colours - pink, navy and blue. It can be worn in memory of a loved one, to celebrate people who've overcome cancer or in support of those going through treatment.
To get a unity band and make a donation, visit a Cancer Research UK shop or visit www.cruk.org/worldcancerday