Introducing Susan; a proud breast cancer previvor

Wonderful Susan (@lookatsusie)

It’s a beautiful, sunny summer’s day here in Norfolk. You know what makes it even better? It’s time to introduce our next guest blog!

We’re delighted to introduce Susan. Susan is a digital communications professional and carries the BRCA2 gene.   

She had a preventative double mastectomy with direct to implant, under the muscle reconstruction in December 2017 which makes her a proud breast cancer previvor.

Having had successfully coached herself to prepare for this surgery she is now working towards a Life Coaching diploma with a view to help people tackle their goals and improve their lives through the life changing magic of coaching. 

You can find her on Instagram as @lookatsusie (as lookatsusan was already taken!).   

Susan believes that mental health is equally important as physical health and just because she’s lost her breast tissue it doesn’t mean she’s lost her sense of humour. 

After three knee surgeries in the last four years one of her goals is to strengthen her knee and leg enough so she can run every day…to catch her bus. 

Without further ado, let’s hear from Susan!

“It was May 2013 when Angelina Jolie announced that she was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation. She stated that this had given her a 87% chance of breast cancer and on the back of that knowledge, had made the decision to have a preventative bi-lateral mastectomy. 

Back in May 2013 I was still five months away from receiving the results of my own blood test for the BRCA2 mutation.  When I read her announcement and brave surgical decision, I remember thinking that Angelina was such a perfect ambassador for BRCA awareness and breast cancer prevention. To me she represented beauty, femininity and, above all, strength.  I thought that if my results showed that I carried the mutated gene, then I would be proud to be associated with her. 

You see, two years prior to Angelina’s announcement I had begun pursuing genetic testing as I became increasing aware of the prevalence of breast cancer on my dad’s side of the family. My dad’s mum had breast cancer. As did his sister (three times no less), his aunty and his female cousin. That’s a lot of breast cancer to consider. 

Because of this niggling family history, I found myself broaching the subject with a practice nurse during a routine pill check in the spring of 2011. It was a sort of ‘by-the-by” kind of thing. I hadn’t previously discussed my growing concerns with anyone, not with my then partner, nor with my family or friends. To be brutally honest I wasn’t even sure what to ask… 

*deep breath*   

“There’s a lot of breast cancer in my family..” I began. 

“What side is it on?” 

“Mainly my dad’s.”  

“It doesn’t come down the father’s side” I was told by the nurse. Dismissed. Case closed.  

Months later I tried again. Another pill check. Another practice nurse. Again, I told them about my family history of breast cancer. 

“It doesn’t come down the father’s side”, I was told again. 

I wasn’t taking no for answer this time.  

“It’s on my mum’s side too.” I pressed, determined not to be fobbed off this time.  This was true, my mum’s sister had finished her treatment for breast cancer and was still being closely monitored. So, on the back of it being present on both sides of my family, the nurse (I have to admit, somewhat reluctantly) referred me for genetic testing. 

For this genetic testing meeting I was asked to bring in a family tree with the types of cancer my relatives had developed and the age they got it.  After the consultant looked at my family history, he confirmed that due to the breast cancer history on my dad’s side, it did suggest that hereditary breast cancer ran in my family.  To be certain I would have to have to have a blood test. Before that I would have to have genetic counselling so I was aware of the impact on my life should my test came back positive.   

I had my genetic counselling and blood taken in October 2011. However, before it could be tested for the gene, a geneticist from my team explained that my breast cancer surviving aunty (my dad’s sister) had to have her blood tested first. This was to try and identify a mutation in her DNA. It’s like being given a book and looking through it to find a spelling mistake. Once you find a spelling mistake in that book, you know what you’re looking for and it’s easier finding it in other books.  The other ‘books’ being my dad and myself. 

Thanks to the complexities of the NHS and the difference of BRCA testing criteria between NHS areas it took a long time to get confirmation. My auntie’s genetic team in the North East had a stricter testing criteria than my team in London and were very reluctant to test her. In fact they initially flat out refused. It took some lobbying on my part to push this along.  I say lobbying, I simply told my softly spoken geneticist in no uncertain terms, to Make This Happen. I had gotten this far into the process, I certainly wasn’t stopping now. To his credit and to with my undying gratitude, he made a passionate case for me, pointing out that my auntie had had breast cancer three times, and so they agreed to test her. 

So, after waiting a painfully long year to find out that my auntie carried the mutated BRCA2 gene it was my dad’s turn to get his blood tested. He had the same spelling mistake. Then it was finally (finally!) my turn. After two very long years of waiting, somewhat bizarrely to the very day, I finally got my results in October 2013. 

Being BRCA2 positive with my genetic variant (there are hundreds of known variants) put my risk of getting breast cancer somewhere between 70%-80%. Not as high as Angelina as the BRCA2 mutation carries less risk, but still very high. All things considered I think I took this news on the chin, as soon as my dad told me he had the gene I kind of knew deep down that I had it as I don’t physically take after my mum. I only cried that day because Billy Elliot is a very emotional musical. Honest 😉 

I was immediately put under yearly MRI monitoring. At first, I was fine with just monitoring. Cutting off my healthy breasts felt counter intuitive and unnecessary. However, after my second MRI scan in January 2015 I had had enough. Scanxiety is a real thing l and I kept reminding myself of how high my risk was. I was fed up wondering after every scan if this was the year I would get breast cancer. I decided it was no way to live. 

Reader, I chose to have a preventative bi-lateral mastectomy. 

I had this preventative bi-lateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction in December 2017.  Was this an easy decision to make? Hell, no. Was the recovery difficult? God yes – more difficult than I imagined, both physically and emotionally. It’s a weird grieving process. It’s traumatic. It’s painful. It’s effectively an elective amputation which I stupidly tried to minimise because I didn’t have breast cancer. 

Am I glad that I had it done? 100% yes. I no longer have the threat of breast cancer hanging over my head. My risk has been reduced from 80% down to somewhere around 5%. Hooray!   

Not only do I no longer worry about getting breast cancer; aesthetically, I’m very happy too. I had a direct to implant reconstruction, placed partially under the muscle.  I had a boudoir style photo shoot before my surgery to help me say ‘goodbye’ to the girls. Not only did this help me to emotionally prepare for my upcoming physical change, it also gave me an opportunity to compare my breasts as to how they used to be. Looking back, I genuinely think they look better now post-surgery. Thanks to my clever surgeons I managed to keep my nipples and I’m roughly the same size; both of which I’m thankful for. I didn’t want to feel as if I would be losing anything from having this annoying mutation.   

I now have more headspace. I may not have had breast cancer, however just like having breast cancer, my life was effectively put on pause and everything revolved around hospital appointments and surgery consultations. It’s no exaggeration that it took over my life for many years. I was mono focussed – reading, researching and making decisions. Literally everything I did in the year leading up to my surgery date was to help me prepare for it.  Work was something I did to pay the bills and I wasn’t even considering a new relationship.  

Having a BRCA mutation does focus the mind, at the least the thought of having it definitely did. I broke up with my ex-partner in 2011 soon after I had my genetic counselling and gave my blood sample. It wasn’t the reason we broke up, however I believe it was a factor. The thought of spending the rest of my life with someone who moaned when I had a cold wasn’t really appealing.  If they couldn’t care for me when I had a virus for a week (Susan, I’m playing a game), what would they be like if I had cancer? I imagine probably a bit sh*t. 

Actually, it’s only just having written this that I’ve realised I’ve cut out some unhelpful people in my life (as well as cutting out unhelpful breasts) as part of this journey.  

Reflecting back, I’ve definitely learnt a lot about myself. I had many ladies said to me that they couldn’t do what I have done. And once, years ago, I’m sure I felt like that too. However, I no longer remember that person. I’ve come to realise that people are stronger than they believe themselves to be.  

More specifically, I am more stronger than I believed myself to be. 

No one wants to become a member of the preventative mastectomy club; however, I’ve discovered there are definite upsides in joining the ranks. Not only have I futureproofed myself against breast cancer (I secretly call myself Susan 2.0 now) and can crack on with my life, I’m proud to part of a group of people who have had to make these difficult choices.  

We are bold. We have courage and we can definitely do hard things. “

Thank you so much for your blog, Susan. So much of it resonated with us here at Valiant HQ. We love the idea of Susan 2.0 and we totally agree; we are bold and courageous and we can do hard things!