Anisha Burkett doesn’t have breast cancer, but she already has an oncologist following her. The 27-year-old mother carries a genetic mutation that makes it virtually certain she will get breast cancer, just as her mother and grandmother did.
“They’re saying by the time I’m 30, they want to do a complete mastectomy,” Burkett said.
Only about 10 percent of breast cancers result from hereditary factors, said Dr. Thomas Samuel, the director of the multidisciplinary breast cancer program at Georgia Health Sciences University Cancer Center, who follows Burkett and her family. Of those inherited cancers, estimates are that 60-80 percent are caused by mutations in the BRCA genes, which is what Burkett and her family carry.
In fact, the family history goes way back, said Burkett’s grandmother, Claudia Caldwell, 63, of Augusta, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994.
“It started with my great-grandmother in the 1800s,” she said.
But none of that was really known, or at least pieced together, until Burkett’s mother, Heather Doan, was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago.
“My grandmother said, ‘Oh, you know your great-great-grandmother had breast cancer, too,’ ” Doan said. “That’s when the stories began, and then we all started questioning and asking questions.”
Because she has daughters, Doan got the testing, which came back positive for a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, and the same mutation showed up in Caldwell and Burkett. Less than 1 percent of people carry these mutations, according to the American Cancer Society.
“We’re just extremely lucky,” Doan joked.
For now, Burkett and Caldwell get a breast MRI at the start of each year and a mammogram in the second half of the year, in addition to blood and other testing for ovarian cancer because the mutation also carries a higher risk for that cancer.
Mutation-positive patients are counseled about prophylactic mastectomies to reduce their breast cancer risk. They are also counseled about having their ovaries removed, Samuel said. Doan has done that, but Caldwell, because she is an uninsured barber and cosmetologist, is waiting until she is 65 and qualifies for Medicare. It also means her MRIs and tests come out of her own pocket.
Caldwell said the MRI cost her $3,484.
“It’s very much a financial strain,” Doan said. “Can you imagine paying out of pocket for that? It’s very expensive.”
The family trait makes Burkett worry about her 20-month-old daughter, Lorelei.
“She has a 50 percent chance” of carrying the gene mutation, she said. “Just luck of the draw, I guess.”
But rather than bemoan their inherited fate, the family is choosing to take it head on.
“We can be very proactive,” Doan said.
“Everybody says, ‘I’m so sorry you have this,’ ” Caldwell said. “I say I’m not sorry that I have it but I’m sure glad we know about it. Thank God.”