Know Your Risk
Born with the breast cancer gene, two Huntington Woods women share survivor stories.
Above: Seth, Jon, Brett, Lacey and Ellyn Davidson of Huntington Woods, with their dog, Tessa
They are wives, mothers, survivors and fighters, each with her own unique story to tell. Ellyn Davidson and Melissa Mally, both of Huntington Woods, live within walking distance of each other in the small Oakland County city of about 6,200 people. The two women, who only recently met, were each born with a gene mutation indicating a hereditary risk for breast cancer.
Both found out about it in different ways, fought cancer and survived — and both are passionate about sharing their stories and urging other women to know their risk, with the hope of saving lives.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer 11 years ago, I had no idea I had a mutation in my BRCA2 gene,” Davidson, now 47, explains. “Knowledge is power. Understanding your risk means you can take steps to avoid a cancer diagnosis.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s clear that awareness, particularly about hereditary cancers, is sorely needed. A recent article in Forbes Magazine revealed a Pennsylvania study of 50,000 people that found eight out of 10 people with a known cancer risk gene did not know they have it. Actress Angelina Jolie is one of the famous faces of heredity cancer; she had a double mastectomy and surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes after learning she had a mutation of the BRCA1 gene.
Like Jolie, Melissa Mally found out she had a BRCA1 gene mutation when she was just 25 years old. Sadly, Mally’s aunt (her mother’s sister) died of ovarian cancer in 2002. A few years later, her mother decided to undergo genetic testing and was positive. During preventative surgery to remove her ovaries, doctors discovered her mother had Stage 1 ovarian cancer. She has since been treated and is now cancer free. That’s when Melissa and her sister decided to get tested. It turns out Melissa has the gene mutation while her sister does not.
“I didn’t let it take over my life or make me feel sad,” Mally says. “We took that information and used it to empower ourselves and make the best decisions for our own health.”
Mally met her husband, Shane, and got married at 32. A year and a half ago, they welcomed their first child, Jonah. After he was born, Melissa was meeting with a surgeon to discuss having a preventative double mastectomy, something she’d been planning to do, when doctors discovered she had stage 1 breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy, six rounds of chemo and a double mastectomy, all during her son’s first year of life. The couple hopes to have more children.
“It’s been hard for us, thinking about our future. We were able to freeze embryos before I started chemotherapy,” she says. “I was able to catch [the cancer] very, very early and I think that’s so important — to take charge of your own health and be your own advocate. Know your history. Get tested.”
Survival Rates Improving
S. David Nathanson, M.D., a surgical oncologist and chairman of breast cancer research with Henry Ford Health System, says there is a bit of good news for patients. Breast cancer survival rates have improved about 1 percent per year over the last 30 years thanks to advances in treatments and chemotherapy/radiation techniques. Nathanson sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
“If you are a young woman who has a family history of breast cancer, you should know about it. You should start asking questions,” Nathanson says. “Genes can be inherited from both your mother and your father. Any physician can order the gene test, which is a blood test. If there’s a suggestion of family history, it’s wise to see a genetic counselor.”
Nathanson points out that Ashkenazi Jewish women (of Central and Eastern European descent) have a higher risk of breast cancer just because they’re Jewish. According to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, about one in 400 people in the U.S. has a BRCA1/2 mutation; but among Ashkenazi Jews, about one in just 40 has the gene mutation.
Those who do have a higher cancer risk are urged to get mammograms and MRI screenings more frequently, starting at a younger age, to try to increase the odds of early detection. Preventative mastectomy and removal of the ovaries have been found to significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women. Hormonal therapy medications, like Tamoxifen, have also been shown to effectively reduce the risk.
“We need to raise awareness and get the message out. You can catch things so much earlier if you really have an understanding of what you’re up against.”
— Ellyn Davidson
Survivor Turned Advocate
Ellyn Davidson, a marketing executive and president of Brogan & Partners in Birmingham, was 36 and the mother of three young children when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. Today, she’s a survivor, a tireless advocate and a national adviser.
Davidson was nominated and named to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women. The committee “helps the CDC develop evidence-based approaches to advance understanding and awareness of breast cancer among young women through prevention research, public and health professional education, and awareness activities and emerging prevention strategies,” according to the organization’s website.
“It’s a huge honor to be accepted on this committee that’s so influential,” Davidson says. “There are still a lot of misconceptions out there, and there are still a lot of things people don’t think about either because they don’t want to or because they just want to think everything’s OK.”
Sadly, Davidson knows many young women who have died because they either didn’t know or fully understand their risk. In one case, a young mother in her 30s lived with a lump for a year and a half, thinking she was not in danger because of her young age, only to later learn she had Stage 4 breast cancer. In her own case, Davidson felt a lump, but it did not show up on a mammogram. She instantly felt a false sense of relief, but she actually did have cancer. It was only discovered when the lump was removed and tested.
“People didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about breast cancer in younger women,” she says. “It wasn’t something that was on my radar at all because I didn’t think I had a family history. It turns out the history is on my father’s side, and there weren’t a lot of women on that side of the family.”
Davidson is also board president of FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered. The 20-year-old national organization is focused on advocacy, advancing research and clinical trials, and representing the concerns and interests of individuals and families affected by hereditary cancers.
“There’s still so much work to do,” Davidson says. “We need to raise awareness and get the message out. You can catch things so much earlier if you really have an understanding of what you’re up against.”
To learn more about FORCE, visit facingourrisk.org.