After learning in December 2014 that her father was a carrier of the BRCA-1 gene, Katherine Saunders immediately knew she needed genetic testing. The 37-year-old mom of two had a 50-50 chance of inheriting the gene, which increases the risk of ovarian and breast cancers, and was likely responsible for the multiple breast cancer diagnoses in her father’s family.
As a registered dietitian, at the time for oncology patients, Saunders had seen the experience of cancer firsthand. “It was an obvious choice to get genetic testing so I could fully understand my risk and take steps to mitigate it,” she says.
Saunders soon met with Huma Rana, MD, clinical director of Dana-Farber’s Center for Cancer Genetics and Prevention, to discuss her options, and braced herself for the worst. A few blood tests and a couple weeks later, she got her results.
“I was BRCA-1 positive, and I immediately felt alone,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anyone else at my stage in life who was experiencing what I was.”
Although the news was initially difficult to process, Saunders soon took action. “I was able to make life-altering decisions thoughtfully, without haste, and, most significantly, without a cancer diagnosis looming over me.”
Her first step in surveillance was establishing a baseline through breast imaging. But doing this meant she had to stop breastfeeding her daughter, Tess, who was less than a year old at the time.
“It was the hardest part of dealing with my test results,” she remembers. But after a discussion with her daughter’s pediatrician, Saunders knew she had to have imaging as soon as possible, not just for herself, but so she would be there to care for her daughters for years to come.
Saunders made the decision in March 2015 to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to significantly reduce her risk of both ovarian and breast cancers. Being in the health field, Saunders did her research prior to surgery and took steps to cope with the side effects of her surgery-induced menopause, such as hot flashes and headaches, by wearing patches and an intrauterine device (IUD) to replace hormones her body was no longer producing.
Although major changes had taken place, Saunders’ life quickly returned to normal, with her two young daughters, now 6 and 3, to keep her busy. But not everything is how it was before: She will undergo a prophylactic mastectomy in the years to come to further reduce her breast cancer risk, and she now lives with the knowledge that her daughters each have a 50-50 chance of being BRCA-positive, a conversation she’ll have to have one day.
“I will have worries about so many other parts of their lives before then,” she says. “And with surgery and surveillance, I have every intention of being alive and well so I can have that conversations with them when the time comes.”
Saunders recently shared her story with Dana-Farber physician-scientists and women’s cancers supporters at the Susan F. Smith Center Executive Council Beyond Boston Luncheon. Watch her full story below.