This is part of an ongoing blog series featuring personal stories from members of the Basser Young Leadership Council (YLC). This was written by Callum Beale, a YLC member based in Adelaide, Australia, with an interest in all research related to BRCA.
Though the impression is often that BRCA mutations primarily affect women and can increase the risk of breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations can also increase the risk of ovarian, pancreatic, and prostate cancer, as well as melanoma. Men can also inherit BRCA mutations and they can be passed down from either parent. The reality is also that these mutations don’t just impact individuals — they affect entire families. This is the heartfelt message of a brother supporting his sister on her journey with BRCA-related cancer.
This is not a story my sister wants to tell. Like every true leader, humility prevents her from sharing her own journey. So, unsure how to convey how she inspires me, I offer a brother’s perspective of the bravery and resilience with which she fights every battle.
The war began in 2016 when she was diagnosed with melanoma. Since then, she has remained on defense, reacting to every reoccurrence. The chronology of battles highlights how relentless the barrage has been. Her past four years are marked with diagnoses of various cancers, surgeries, and treatment regimens to both treat and prevent the omnipresent threat of disease. There has been an unimaginable sequence of setbacks that have wounded her physically and mentally, but they have also revealed a resilience I did not know was possible.
Two weeks ago, doctors told my sister to brace for impact, as yet another battle awaited — another cancer recurrence. Like each time before, she plotted an attack with a battalion of surgeons and specialists. Her battlefield — the operating theatre — has become a far too familiar stage for these fights.
But, yet again, my sister emerged with even more scars that testify her bravery. Soon, she will undergo immunotherapy where her body will again be asked to respond to foreign invasion. She will expose herself to more rounds of toxic bullets, against which bravery is her only armor.
She is growing battle-weary, but she will ‘soldier on.’ Her persistence is now selfless, knowing her family and friends are far more dependent on her than she of them. It is her selflessness that permits her ‘solider’ status.
There is an insatiable search for the lessons this BRCA gene mutation is trying to teach those directly and indirectly affected. These learnings oscillate across a spectrum of clarity and confusion. For today though:
Those who inherit a BRCA gene mutation also inherit the Bravery gene. A consistent thread weaves through the stories told by BRCA mutation carriers. It is that there appears an inextricable link between a BRCA mutation and unmoving bravery. I am yet to read a BRCA journey that isn’t infiltrated with courage. For those of us watching the battles from the bunker, we can confidently take comfort in knowing carriers possess bravery beyond our comprehension.
Each battle is won through both strength and science. At the core of the fight is the physical and mental strength of the carrier — a resilience one needs to see to believe. This is overlaid with the advances in medicine; from diagnosis to treatment, science gives all carriers and their families reason to hope. The laser-like focus of the Basser Center for BRCA is evidence that no one is fighting this battle alone.
Early genetic testing changes the dynamic of the fight. Genetic testing allows the battle waged to be one of offense rather than defense. Undergoing genetic testing is a complex decision, and in the case of my sister, there was no resounding reason as to why she needed testing. However, the timing of her test put her one-step behind each diagnosis, leaving her on defense at every test, scan, and operation. Early testing allows carriers to stay ahead of any battles lurking in their genes and can influence how each will be fought.
The lessons and learnings will continue, but for now, BRCA mutation carriers should know there is an army of troops behind you, desperate to provide any protection they can. For family members who must sit idly by, remember that our fearless leaders possess levels of bravery of which we simply can’t relate. One of my sister’s young daughters recently asked, “Mom, why does this bad stuff keep happening to you?” My sister responded, “because God knows I am strong enough to handle it.” She is bravery personified.
Opinions of the Basser Young Leadership Council members are their own personal opinions and do not necessarily represent those of the Basser Center.