Bridget's Story: "I was the only one in my family out of four who inherited the BRCA1 gene"

24 Oct 2022

My name is Bridget and I’m 30 years old. I was just eleven when I lost my mother to cancer. Since then, I’ve lost a further six people within our family to cancer: my two grandparents died of cancer before I was born along with one cousin. My late husband also died of cancer.

It’s a prominent gene in my family. Even though my mother died of cancer, I have inherited the BRCA1 gene from my father’s side of the family. I’m the only one in my family of four who has inherited the gene mutation (six of my siblings have been tested and my older sister is currently waiting for testing). Myself and my brother who is negative.

I believe that everything happens for a reason. After what I’ve been through, and what my family has had to endure, this may be difficult to understand. But I think that I was given cancer because I’m strong enough to handle it. Even though, at times, I haven’t felt like moving forwards. If my sister, with her four girls children, had been diagnosed, then her children may have inherited the gene.

I’ve always known that I had a risk of cancer – when you lose your mother at such a young age, it leaves a mark on you. Since I was 16 I’ve tried to find out what my risk of cancer was. But no doctor would take my concerns seriously. I was told that my worries about inheriting the disease were causing me mental health issues.

Finally, at the age of 27, I found a GP who listened to me and my family’s history of cancer. When she heard that my grandmother had had ovarian cancer and my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, she recognised the genetic risk I faced. Even with my GPs referral, it was a battle to be genetically tested. My father was tested first; once he came back positive I was tested.

His results came back first: positive. Then mine: the same result. We both had the BRCA1 gene. My father was very upset that he’d passed the gene onto me. Especially now that I have also gone through a cancer diagnosis.

When I was told that I carried the BRCA1 gene, I immediately decided that I wanted a mastectomy. My genetic doctor disagreed: I was too young, I was told. However, I’d done my research. Women with a mutation in gene have an increased lifetime risk of breast cancer. A prophylactic mastectomy or risk-reducing mastectomy reduced my statistics to less than 2%. [This is significantly lower than the population risk of approximately 8%.]

A girlfriend (who had had breast cancer) referred me to her doctor. Thankfully, he understood my decision and placed me on a waitlist (as I was going through the public health system). My new doctor understood that I wanted to get rid of my breasts before I turned 30 years old. He agreed with me: to get rid of the risk - before it was a risk.

Even with his recommendation, I was still not considered a priority.

Then Covid-19 happened. Which meant that all waitlists were affected. I’d found an oncology plastic surgeon near to my home, which meant I didn’t have to keep travelling to Sydney for my six monthly check-ups. In June 2020, I had an MRI, that came back clear. In March 2021, I was diagnosed with cancer.

Each month I always thoroughly checked my breasts for lumps: I was very thorough. Then I found a lump at the bottom of my breast. I was petrified. My GP tried to reassure me by telling me it was most likely fibre adenoma. Thankfully, as she was familiar with my family history and my genetic mutation, she referred me for an ultrasound. The first ultrasound was done quickly: just 20 minutes. They gave me all clear and recommended I return in six months’ time for a biopsy if it was still present. My GP wasn’t happy with these results and organised another ultrasound. This took one hour – they were so thorough and so gentle and comforting.

My GP had been right. The lump was fibre adenoma. But under that lump was another lump, which raised some red flags. The biopsy showed it was Stage One, fast growing. I was alone when my GP gave me my results – I was a mess. My partner works six days a week and couldn’t be with me. It was horrific. I sat in my car afterwards, calling my family and friends with the news.

It was urgent now that I had my double mastectomy. I had my surgery on April 1st, 2021. Eggs freezing came after my surgery but before chemotherapy. Two weeks before, I went through the process of freezing my eggs. I’ve always wanted to be a mother, I have so much love to give. We managed just three eggs: my first round of IVF failed. We could only do two rounds, as I needed to start chemotherapy. We’re holding out hope that the chemotherapy hasn’t made me infertile.

It was such an emotional time: hormone therapy for the egg retrieval, feeling terrified about my upcoming operation chemotherapy. One night it got too much and I broke down in front of my partner, telling him I wanted to die. That I couldn’t do any of it. I was so petrified: I’d lost my mother; I’d seen so many family members go through cancer. Thankfully, my partner is so supportive. We’d only been together for five months prior to my diagnosis, although he knew from the outset that I had the BRCA1 gene.

My mastectomy was very, very painful. I was in hospital for ten days, rather than the expected five. I was in agony. The doctor didn’t listen to me; I felt very helpless. I had reconstructive surgery with silicone implants. The first month they were very uncomfortable. In November, 2021 I had another operation, it felt as though the left breasts, the one which didn’t have a lump, was falling into my armpit. I wasn’t happy with the surgery on my nipples either. This was a huge mistake: the surgeon didn’t take the nipple off, he stretched it out. It’s left huge scars and puckering. I wished I’d had them removed and tattooing done instead.

I hate my body now. There’s big scars around my breasts and nipples. I have lingering nerve pain from where the drainage tube under my armpit was inserted. Even now it’s still incredibly sensitive and painful. The left breast, the one that had cancer, looks amazing. The non-cancerous side, looks horrendous. I hate the sight of that side of my body. I’m currently saving up for reconstructive surgery so that I can look at that side of my body without crying.

I’ve put on weight due to the hormone blockers, and I can’t seem to lose it. I’ve lost my confidence and struggle to find clothes. Just everything feels wrong. My partner tells me I am beautiful and perfect the way I am. But he understands that I’m not happy.

I’m still recovering from the whole ordeal. The chemotherapy wiped me out – I couldn’t get out of bed after each treatment; I lost all my hair. I didn’t work for seven months. Even now, I don’t feel well. I try to go for walks, and I have two dogs who need daily walking.

Thank goodness for Pink Hope. When I was first diagnosed I found Pink Hope on Facebook and asked the online forum for help; on BRCA1, doctors, mastectomies, all of it. They were incredibly helpful. There’s forum members who still check in on me to see how I am, offering advice and support. During my treatment I had to step back a little, I felt that I was surrounded by cancer. But I know that next year, when we start trying for children, that I’ll reach out again.

My life has been pretty hard, ever since I was a little girl. But everything has had to happen for a reason, otherwise, why would it have been so hard. It’s happened to me because I can handle it.