Donna Harrell has many painful memories associated with breast cancer.
She remembers shaving the heads of both her mother and her sister as they prepared for chemotherapy. She watched as her mother battled breast cancer and ovarian cancer over the years before cancer finally went into her bones. She watched her sister suffer from the cancer that had gone into her brain.
“I didn’t want to go through everything they went through,” said Harrell, who opted for a prophylactic double mastectomy and hysterectomy, after genetic testing came back positive.
Her mother battled cancer several times over the course of nearly 30 years, but there were many other women in her family tree who’d had the disease. All of them were diagnosed in their 40s.
In 2004, Harrell learned she carried the genetic markers for both breast and ovarian cancer, but it would be two more years before she could have the operations done. It was during those two years she cared for her mother in her final stages of cancer and watched as the disease also took her sister.
“Those were the longest two years of my life,” said Harrell, who was 45 at the time of her genetic test. “I knew there was a good chance I was going to get it. I was right in my 40s.”
In 2006, Harrell had both the mastectomy and hysterectomy.
According to the National Cancer Institute, women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene may be able to reduce their risk of breast cancer by 95 percent by having a mastectomy.
Actress Angelina Jolie gave the procedure attention in 2013 when she announced she’d had the surgery performed on her after she tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. Her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died of ovarian cancer in 2007.
The National Cancer Institute also reported women who have a strong family history of breast cancer may be able to reduce their chance of developing the disease by up to 90 percent with the procedure.
MaLea Breland fell into the second category.
Unlike Harrell, Breland didn’t have the genetic markers, but she had a strong family history of the disease. Breland was only 15 when her mother died from it.
“My mom’s four aunts got it under the age of 40,” she said.
But when her sister developed it at the age of 37, Breland’s concerns grew.
“Six women in my family all got it and I wasn’t a carrier,” she said. “It made the doctor go ‘there’s more here than meets the eye.’”
Breland had the surgery nine years ago. Other types of reproductive cancers can occur in women who’ve had breast cancer, so her doctor watched her closely to see whether any symptoms appeared.
Breland had a hysterectomy three years after the double mastectomy.
What surprised Breland most about her journey was people couldn’t understand why she’d take such a radical move, especially when the genetic testing came back negative.
Now Breland and Harrell said they sleep better at night.
Prophylactic mastectomy can’t prevent all breast cancer. Some breast tissue remains even after the surgery and there’s a still a slight chance cancer could develop there, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website.
And the surgery is not without risks. There’s the risk of developing an infection as well as emotional issues arising from the breasts being removed. It may affect some women’s self-esteem and sexuality. Additional surgeries and risks are involved with breast reconstruction surgery.
Despite the risks, Harrell said it’s one of the best decisions she’s ever made and doesn’t regret it.
“For the peace of mind, I would go through the pain 10 times over,” she said.