The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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Breast Cancer

October 1, 2012

After seeing seven sisters battle cancer, woman takes proactive approach

JOHNSTOWN — Seven of Regina Waksmonski’s 13 sisters have been diagnosed with either breast cancer or ovarian cancer.

Four have died from the cancers before their 61st birthdays. The youngest was 36.

Because of the family history, Waksmonski was always conscientious about her annual mammograms and breast exams. There were some scares from false positives, but the biopsies or MRI screenings showed her cancer-free.

When one of her sisters tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene, notorious for causing breast and ovarian cancer, she urged Waksmonski to be tested.

“If my sister hadn’t tested positive, I would have never got tested,” Waksmonski said. “She saved my life.”

The Hollidaysburg woman had heard about a genetic predisposition to cancer from her family doctor, but didn’t think she was at risk.

“I always told her I don’t need that,” Waksmonski said. “I was raised Roman Catholic, attended Catholic school and had no Jewish relatives.”

But, at her sister’s suggestion, Waksmonski decided to look into it some more and contacted Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center in Windber, where Dr. Raymond Weiss, a medical oncologist and genetic counselor, provides a clinic every month.

“After talking with Dr. Weiss, I came to realize that my maternal grandparents came from Austria,” Waksmonski said. “My grandmother was an orphan, so we had no genealogy to trace.”

Waksmonski tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene, making her five times more likely to contract breast cancer. But she also learned she could take action to prevent the cancer.

After consulting with Weiss and other physicians, Waksmonski elected to have prophylactic surgery, which included a double mastectomy and removal of her ovaries.

“This is a situation where no one can control their genes,” Weiss said.

The prophylactic surgery may be extreme, but Weiss says more women are taking the option.

“They can do something to prevent it,” Weiss said. “They won’t get either one of those cancers.”

That doesn’t make Waksmonski immune from cancer in other organs, Weiss noted.

“Of course anybody can get cancer at any time, but she is at no more risk than average,” he said.

Waksmonski was apprehensive about the mastectomy surgery. Like many women, she worried about the change in her body’s appearance.

“When I thought of all the surgery, I was scared to death,” Waksmonski said. “It hasn’t been really as bad as I thought it would be.”

One thing that really helped, she said, was that her procedure included breast reconstruction by a plastic surgeon following the mastectomy.

“There is a psychological effect on a woman,” Waksmonski said. “She goes into surgery with breasts and she comes out of surgery with breasts.”

Waksmonski’s family has been supportive. In honor of her surgery, she got two duplicate

T-shirts, each emblazoned, “Yes, they’re fake, my real ones tried to kill me.” One shirt was a gift from her daughter. The other came from a niece.

Waksmonski is urging her surviving sisters and all of her daughters and nieces to get BRCA testing to head off their risk of breast cancer.

“The peace of mind is wonderful,” she said. “Plus not having to go get mammograms.”

Although the tests are expensive, Weiss said insurance companies will usually cover the cost for women who meet certain criteria.

Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50, or who have close relatives who developed cancer at an early age are candidates. The first thing Weiss does with each patient is put together a comprehensive family cancer history.

If the family history shows a strong predisposition to cancer, and the blood test is positive for BRCA 1 or BRCA 2, it is time to spread the word, Weiss said.

“Now all her siblings are candidates for testing because they may have inherited the same gene mutation,” he said.

BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 are shorthand for BReast CAncer susceptibility gene 1 and gene 2. They are the most common inherited cancers, Weiss said.

“There are more than 50 known hereditary cancer syndromes,” he said.

Weiss holds the risk reduction clinic for breast cancer about once every month at Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center.

Testing and counseling are also available at Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown. Indiana Regional Medical Center provides testing, but refers patient to UPMC’s Magee-Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh for counseling.

 

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