Sue Friedman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 at age 33. At the time, she was told by her doctor that the cancer was stage 0 or DCIS. She underwent a mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction (which took fat and muscle from her abdomen to reconstruct her breast), after which she was told she was “cured.” But Sue later found a lump in her armpit, and she sought a second opinion. It was then that she learned the initial diagnosis of DCIS was incorrect and the cancer– which had been invasive all along – had now spread to her lymph nodes.
Right before her recurrence, Sue read a magazine article that discussed genetic testing and hereditary cancers and realized she had several indications for a mutation. These included: breast cancer diagnosed before age 45, a family history of ovarian cancer and Eastern European Jewish ethnicity.
What followed was an intense year of treatment that included chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Sue advocated on her own behalf to get genetic testing, which revealed she had a BRCA2 gene mutation, likely inherited from her father’s side of the family.
Sue learned that she was at high risk for a new diagnosis of cancer in her remaining breast. For this reason, after treatment she underwent a mastectomy on her other side and reconstruction with a gluteal flap, which took fat and muscle from her buttock to reconstruct her breast. Since the BRCA2 mutation meant she was also susceptible to developing ovarian and fallopian tube cancer, Sue underwent an oophorectomy and hysterectomy.
Realizing there was a void for people like her, who had an inherited mutation linked to cancer, and understanding firsthand how difficult it was to find the information she needed, in 1999 Sue founded Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE), with a mission to improve the lives of individuals and families facing hereditary cancer by connecting people to expert-reviewed information, clinical trials and peer support to help people make informed medical decisions.
After receiving her genetic test results, Sue told all her blood relatives about her BRCA2 mutation and encouraged them to have genetic counseling and testing. Despite this, few of her relatives followed through. Years later, Sue’s father was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, and passed away soon after his diagnosis. Sue encourages people to be sure to talk with their doctors about their full family history of cancer – on both the maternal and paternal sides.
“Metastatic prostate cancer is one of the red flags for an inherited mutation. The expert guidelines recommend genetic counseling and testing for anyone with metastatic prostate cancer,” she said. “With a BRCA2 mutation, which is the gene my mutation is in, there is also an increased risk for male breast, pancreatic and prostate cancer. We often talk about cancer on the mother’s side, but we need to talk about the father’s side, too. Chances are my hereditary cancer risk came from my father’s side of the family.”
Everyone is at risk of cancer, but some people are at higher risk than others. Learning about cancer risks can empower people to make important health care decisions so they can take charge of their health.