Martha Albrecht knew cancer ran in her family. Her mom survived breast cancer in the 1970s, as did Albrecht when she was in her 30s. Albrecht’s sister, Linda, died of breast cancer in 2003.
In May 2015 Albrecht, 53, received confirmation that she carries the mutated gene BRCA1, one of many genes that are linked to breast cancer in women and men. This gene abnormality also increases the risk of ovarian cancer — a disease that is often fatal because by the time symptoms appear, it is too late to treat.
“I was always told I was at high risk for ovarian cancer and should do genetic testing,” Albrecht said.
But she hesitated because she had read that concrete proof of the gene could affect the ability of her children to get health insurance, and she did not want that to hinder them.
But then came health care reform, and Albrecht finally felt comfortable enough to oblige her older daughter’s request to have the genetic testing done.
The results of genetic testing
The testing showed that her 25-year-old daughter, LeeAnn, does not carry the gene, but her 22-year-old daughter, Alissa, does. Her son, Alex, 28, has not been tested.
Knowing she had the BRCA1 gene gave Albrecht the opportunity to essentially knock ovarian cancer out of the picture. According to the American College of Obstetrics, those with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene reduce their chances of getting ovarian cancer by 80 to 90 percent by having their ovaries removed. And, if they do it before menopause, they reduce their risk of getting breast cancer by 50 to 60 percent.
Still, Albrecht was hesitant to step into the ring. Doing so would mean yet another surgery, and she had already had two partial mastectomies and breast reconstruction. She didn’t want the disruption to her life.
“I felt shamed by my previous doctors that I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “They would say, ‘Don’t you know this will kill you?’ I never felt like I was heard.”
If one or more of the following situations applies to you or your immediate family, you may want to make an appointment with the Hereditary Cancer Clinic in your area:
- Many relatives in your family have had cancer.
- Two or more of your relatives have had the same type of cancer.
- You and a relative have had the same type of cancer.
- You and/or a relative were/was diagnosed with cancer before age 50.
- You or a relative have/has had more than one type of cancer.
- You or a relative have/has had a rare cancer (such as breast cancer in a male).
Having the conversation
She finally decided to follow one doctor’s advice and “just have a conversation” with Dr. Natalie Rochester, who practices at UCHealth Women’s Care Clinic in Loveland and Greeley.
Rochester, who has removed the ovaries and fallopian tubes of 12 women at risk for ovarian cancer in the past year — a procedure known as prophylactic oophorectomy — said she could tell Albrecht was very anxious about having surgery, so she counseled her about positive outcomes as well as the risks of the procedure and why it was recommended. Rochester spent time with Albrecht to discuss her concerns and fears.
Together, they talked about Albrecht’s “plan B,” which would require fanatical attention to her health. “I told her, ‘You’re going to get tired of seeing me,’” Rochester said. “She needed something concrete so she had a choice either way.”
It took Albrecht a few months to mull over her options, and she initially planned to stick with plan B, Rochester said. But Albrecht eventually scheduled the surgery for November 2015.
“Maybe it was her bedside manner,” Albrecht said of Rochester. “She was so relatable and so genuine; I immediately felt at ease. She acknowledged my fears. … She put the whole decision on me.”
What happens next?
Albrecht was an excellent candidate for single-port laparoscopy, a procedure that involves removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes through an incision in the belly button. Because of scar tissue from previous surgeries, Albrecht required a second incision, but it didn’t hinder her recovery, Rochester said.
In fact, Albrecht describes the surgery as “a piece of cake.” She said she was itching to return to the gym and her bike within a week, though Rochester counseled her to wait another week to ensure she was healed.
The mental recovery was quick as well, Albrecht said.
“I never realized [ovarian cancer] was that much of a fear for me, but obviously it was a huge fear for me because I felt so much relief,” she said. “The fear was so much greater than the actual procedure and recovery.”
Living with the results
Not only does Albrecht have peace of mind about her health, but so does Alissa, who now has a clear idea of what she needs to do.
“I can take steps and be proactive about it because early detection is the only cure,” Alissa said. Those steps include going to a doctor for breast exams twice a year and adding breast MRIs alternated with mammograms when she turns 25. And she’ll get ultrasounds and pelvic exams once or twice annually until she is ready to have her own ovaries removed.
“It’s definitely scary,” she said. “But I’m glad that I know that I can take steps to catch it early when it does come around.”
Albrecht said she knows that if genetic testing had been available, it could have saved her sister’s life. But she’s relieved not only to have done all she can to prevent ovarian cancer, but also to empower Alissa with the knowledge to save her own life.
“I’m so tired of cancer — anything having to do with cancer as a part of my life,” she said.