David and Lauren on their wedding day in May 2018.
David and Lauren on their wedding day in May 2018.

Meet Lauren Willens, who used genetic screening to prevent passing on cancerous genes to her children.

It was a tough moment when Lauren Willens, 34, of Bloomfield Hills discovered she had a BRCA1 (Breast Cancer gene 1) gene mutation in 2018.

“Both of my parents died at young ages from cancer. When my husband, David, and I were married and trying to conceive, as an Ashkenazi Jewish couple, before getting pregnant, we underwent routine genetic screening.

“We were planning on only undergoing a routine screening panel, however, David, who is a physician, and our genetic counselor convinced me, after reviewing my family history, to pursue a more robust cancer screening panel,” she added. “I was very hesitant and scared to learn what I was carrying in my body. Unfortunately, a few weeks later (and on the last day of our honeymoon), David and I learned that I had the BRCA1 mutation.”

Willens said, “At the time I received my results, I was 30 years old and shocked. We had just been married, and I already had a healthy son from a prior marriage. My BRCA1 diagnosis hit me as hard as a cancer diagnosis because it made it a sure thing that I would have cancer — we just didn’t know when. I felt like a ticking time bomb.”

She would later learn that this result is not uncommon as 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women will have a BRCA gene mutation.

After losing her parents at such a young age, Willens was very clear in what decision came next for her and her growing family. The couple would decide to proactively go through IVF to screen their embryos using preimplantation genetic testing (PGT). This way, the couple could rest easy knowing that they were not perpetuating the cycle of these genetic statics.
Dr. Esther Zekman, an OB/GYN in Farmington Hills, says with modern medical technology, they have the ability to detect gene mutation. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis or PGT can detect if an embryo has a gene mutation. “Then we would implant the embryo that doesn’t carry the gene that their mother or father has,” Zekman said.

The couple chose to implant a female embryo. “I felt so empowered to know that my children would not have to face the questions and fears of receiving a genetic diagnosis,” Willens said.

 David and Lauren during their maternity photoshoot in November 2019.
David and Lauren during their maternity photoshoot in November 2019.

Their daughter, Stella, was born beautiful and healthy on Jan. 29, 2020.

“While I would have loved any child that I would be lucky enough to carry, I am so grateful that modern science allowed me to have a daughter, Stella, that I can confidently look at and say, you’re not going to get breast cancer,” she said.

Zekman said that as an OB/GYN, she recommends genetic screening, particularly in the Ashkenazi population for BRAC1, 2 and Lynch syndrome because there can be implications for women’s ovaries, breasts and uterus.

For those with the gene, Zekman recommends for ovaries to be removed by the age of 40. “And approximately around that age range, we want patients to complete their childbearing,” she said.

In 2021, Willens was diagnosed and courageously defeated triple-negative breast cancer. As a part of her journey, she underwent 20 rounds of chemotherapy, 20 rounds of an additional immunotherapy and a double mastectomy.

“When I was in remission from my breast cancer and two months after my double mastectomy, due to my elevated risk for ovarian cancer with the BRAC1 mutation, I made the decision with my oncologist and my IVF doctor to proactively remove my ovaries and my fallopian tubes,” Willens said.

Willens still hopes that she can grow her family. “The idea of these surgeries scared me, because I felt like I would be less of a woman. I can tell you with confidence that I am a much stronger version of me.”

Building a Family After Cancer

The mother of two is now a strong advocate for routine genetic screening within the Jewish community with JScreen.

JScreen is a national organization that provides access to an easy-to-use at-home saliva test that gives people who want to have children an unprecedented understanding of their own genetic information and associated risks as they relate to family planning.

 Lauren ringing the bell after completing all the infusion treatments with her nurse at Henry Ford Cancer Institute May 2022.
Lauren ringing the bell after completing all the infusion treatments with her nurse at Henry Ford Cancer Institute May 2022.

“The benefit and the beauty of genetic screening, especially in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, is important to look at these mutations in both men and women because there is an elevated increased risk,” Willens added.

“Genetic screening is scary and a personal choice because you don’t know what you’re going to get and what you can control. But I feel empowered by my journey and my choices. I feel like my health is in my hands, and now I can stick around and be there for my kids and try to help the next generation of folks who are dealing with these issues.”
Willens hopes the people reading her story can also proactively make health decisions, not just for growing their families, but for their individual health and well-being.

The Willens family picture during Rosh Hashanah 2022.
The Willens family picture during Rosh Hashanah 2022.

“My only regret is that I didn’t proactively seek surgeries to remove my organs earlier. I thought of my family and my kids, but the idea of directly addressing my cancer risks felt scary and selfish. Dealing with a genetic diagnosis is a diagnosis. And I strongly encourage everyone to not only get screened, but not to fear pro-active steps.”

To learn more about JScreen Detroit, visit jfamily.jccdet.org/jscreen.

Previous articleLooking Back: A Joyful Holiday
Next articlePurely Commentary: A Kick in the Pants