"It was shocking and awful but there was a silver lining as it was caught early." Photo: Jess Braude
Jess Braude never met her grandmother, Lise. This was her father’s mother, who died at the age of 34, when Jess’s father was five years old. And this was the story about Lise that was handed down, how she had died young from breast cancer.
“I knew in the back of my mind why I didn’t have a grandmother on that side of the family,” Jess says.
In July, Jess Braude turns 34. In a roundabout way she has Lise to thank for making it so far, for securing a future that was almost taken from her.
“It was only in about 2016 that by random chance my cousin heard an interview with a geneticist who spoke about this BRCA gene testing,” she says.
This encouraged her father and uncle to get tested for abnormalities on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. About 5-10 per cent of people with breast cancer have a mutation of their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. People with a mutation in one of these genes have a higher risk of developing breast, ovarian and other cancers.
“There is a 50 per cent change that the gene is passed on,” says Jess. “There was no point in us younger people having the test”.
If her father or uncle didn’t have it, then it wouldn’t be passed on to Jess, her sister or her cousin.
All of this was of relative good fortune.
“Because when I spoke to my GP about it, around the same time, she did an online questionnaire that analysed my risk factors that determined risk for the gene. I was actually recommended not to undergo testing because I only had one relative who’d had breast cancer,” she says.
As it turned, both her father and uncle had the abnormality on the BRCA2.
Jess was 29 when she was tested. Her sister was two years younger.
“We didn’t think of the long term implications. We were just ‘of course we’ll have the testing’ because how great it will be to have this information. We just did it without fully thinking what it meant.”
When the women were both found to carry the gene, “it was a relief in that we could go on that journey together, if that makes sense”.
The sisters “never thought” they’d actually get breast cancer until they were much older.
“They give you all these pamphlets with these graphs that show you don’t really need to worry until you’re 60. We were told you just live your life like you normally would.
“Another consideration for us at the time: Neither of us had children and the message was, have your family and then think about it.”
Once the genetic defect had been identified, the woman were told they’d need to undergo screening every six months, alternating between an ultrasound and an MRI.
An ultrasound in December 2016 was clear. The MRI on her birthday revealed a one-centimetre tumour. What followed was a biopsy that led to a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive non-hormone related cancer. A lumpectomy removed the tumour and five months of chemotherapy was endured to ensure the cancer hadn’t spread.
A tragedy from the past encouraged Jess's family members to have BRCA gene testing. Photo: Jess Braude
“It was shocking and awful but there was a silver lining as it was caught early. I wouldn’t have had a life if it hadn’t been picked up early. At the time, it was the worst, but I don’t think I would have survived if they had found it later,” she says.
In January 2018, Jess had a double mastectomy. Her sister, who also carried the gene, had a double mastectomy as a preventative measure. Jess’s attitude to the radical surgery? “Why would you hang onto something that could kill you?”
There is a lovely ending to this story. In May, about the time of the Mother’s Day Classic, Jess will give birth to her first child. Soon after Jess will celebrate that 34th birthday, with a view to many more.