It was 2007 and Victoria O’Daniel was finishing up her appointment with her OBGYN, Dr. Wayne Furr. He cautiously showed her an article he’d been reading. Knowing her strong family history with cancer, Dr. Furr told her about a groundbreaking blood test that could detect if a person had the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation that could cause breast cancer.
“My mom died of ovarian cancer. She had two sisters who passed away from ovarian reproductive cancer. And each of them had a daughter who developed breast cancer in their thirties early forties.”
Every year an estimated 297,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer among U.S. women. Up to 15% of people with breast cancer develop the disease because they have inherited genetic mutations involving the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
After her conversation with Dr. Furr, Victoria went ahead and did the genetic blood test. At the time the blood test cost $4000. And the results came back positive for the gene mutation.
“I was going to have ovarian cancer because I have the gene. And then my risk for breast cancer was 89% so pretty high. It was kind of weird because I didn’t know what to do about that. There was not anything on the internet at that point not like now. There was nothing in the media or news. All I knew was that we were about to move and I had another baby right after.”
In 2010 the family packed up and left for Houston, TX due to her husband’s new job. It was there Victoria was referred to see a breast cancer oncologist who encouraged her to get a double mastectomy. The gene mutation diagnosis required Victoria to undergo bloodwork and imaging every six months for early cancer detection. She was considered a good candidate for DIEP flap reconstruction after her mastectomy. DIEP flap is when a patient’s own tissue is used to create a new breast.
“I liked my breasts. I really didn’t want to get rid of them, you know, I wasn’t really thinking of afterward. It was a really difficult surgery to recover from physically because I think it was at least a year before I could lay on my back and rest my arms by my side because it was so tight under my armpits. I didn’t get implants. I didn’t want anything artificial in me. I just wanted my own body. I wanted my breasts to look the same and that’s all I wanted. The surgeon did a great job.”
What Victoria wasn’t prepared for was the lack of information about how to explain why she had her breasts removed when she clearly wasn’t sick. It was hard to explain the importance of cancer prevention and the decision to have this life saving surgery.
“I was a nurse and I should know all this stuff, but it’s true when you’re the patient and this is a big surgery to have. I had a really hard time psychologically and emotionally recovering from surgery. I was embarrassed to tell people I had a mastectomy because a couple of times someone was like, why would you do that? You don’t have breast cancer. Why do that? ….And then Angelina Jolie came out and told everyone she had a double mastectomy because her mom died of breast and ovarian cancer or something like that. I needed that testimonial.”
Being a busy mom of 4 and working helped Victoria eventually feel like herself again, but it took time.
“Maybe two years, I felt more like myself…At that time I was prepared for my postoperative expectations like you would for major surgery…but that psychological and emotional component was not addressed at that time. They’ve come a long way. “
In 2017 Victoria eventually chose to have a total vaginal hysterectomy (TVH) and a salpingo-oophorectomy (ovaries and fallopian tubes removed).
“It took me a year to get balanced with hormones. That was rough. Hormone replacement, I was still kind of young when I had that surgery…But now I wouldn’t, even though the first surgery, the mastectomy, was very difficult, I wouldn’t change it. I’m grateful for my health and I’m glad I really don’t have to worry about getting cancer because my risk was super high.”
Dr. Furr who remains Victoria’s OBGYN says “Seeing someone getting susceptible to an illness whether its cancer or non-malignant should always be utilized by providers in helping their patients achieve the best health they can get.”
Today Victoria is busy as ever. She’s an RN who works at Poudre Valley Hospital and is currently studying to be a nurse practitioner. Looking back Victoria considers herself blessed and in a good place. Now with the life altering surgeries behind her, once she graduates as a nurse practitioner, she wants to help other women going through hormone replacement and offer them the guidance and advice she wished she had.
“There are resources out there now. Make sure that your surgeon and health care providers are who you want to see. Don’t be afraid to interview people. Don’t be afraid to get 2-3 consults. Go to who feels best for you because that’s who you need to have your relationship with for that short time. And give yourself grace and time to heal from these big surgeries.”