Two young and healthy Birmingham sisters have taken the decision to have their breasts removed to beat the disease that has claimed the lives of their mother, grandmother and two great aunts.
Alison Carby, 25, from Erdington, and her sister Francesca, 22, from Kingstanding, both opted for mastectomy surgery after watching their mother Angela Carby endure eight years of suffering with cancer.
The women underwent a genetic test that detects whether they are carrying the inherited cancer gene BRCA2 two years ago when their mother was still alive.
While a third sister, 31-year-old Selina, from Fordbridge, was lucky enough to escape the gene, Alison and Francesca were devastated to find they were both carrying it – meaning an 85 per cent risk they would develop breast cancer.
“I remember sitting at work with my little sister Francesca when my older sister Selina rang and said ‘have you not got it either?’,” said Alison. “Francesca and I just sat there and looked at each other. Selina was trying for a baby at the time so we were really relieved for her.
“I had no difficulty making the decision because I’d seen my mum go through chemotherapy and there was no way I wanted that. I remember telling her about my decision to have the mastectomy. She told me I was the bravest person she knew and that she could never have made that decision.
“But I don’t see it as being brave. If someone said ‘buy a lottery ticket – you’ve got an 85 per cent chance of winning’ you’d go straight out and buy one wouldn’t you?
“As it stands, I still have a five per cent chance of getting breast cancer but that’s better than the odds I did have.”
Alison was a teenager when her mother found a lump in her breast in 2002. Although it was removed, the cancer spread and forced Angela to endure surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone treatments before doctors discovered there were five tumours in her brain.
Angela, from Kingshurst, died aged just 50 in March last year after seeing Alison have both her breasts removed and reconstructed in October 2008, but she never knew that her other daughter Francesca also underwent a mastectomy in January this year. It was a devastating legacy for the sisters after their grandmother had died at the age of 67 in 1993 and their grandmother’s two sisters were also killed by the disease.
“Mum was quite a strong, assertive person, so it was really sad to watch her get weaker and weaker,” said Alison, an administrator at Birmingham recruitment firm Randstad Corporate and Managed Services.
“I had no problems with the procedure – I just didn’t want breast cancer because I didn’t want chemotherapy. Seeing my mum going through it was tough. I remember her hands and feet hurting. I remember she used to look drunk at 10am in the morning because of the effect of the drugs.
“I still have a five per cent chance of getting cancer but that’s better than an 85 per cent chance. If other people can find out they’ve got this gene and there’s ways to prevent getting cancer then that’s fantastic in my eyes. Prevention is better than cure.”
Francesca, who works in administration at Fujitsu Telecommunications in Solihull, took longer to decide on the operation. This year, she had the double masectomy which also saw tissue taken from her back and silicone added for reconstruction surgery.
“I wasn’t sure what I would do at first,” said Francesca. “I wanted to see how Alison came through it, but ultimately the risk was too high.
“There was a lot of pain for a long time after surgery and I was off work for seven weeks. It took a lot of getting used to as I would look in the mirror and there was a big difference to my body. That was psychologically hard for a while but now I don’t even remember what my body used to look like.
“It would have been a harder decision to make if I had not seen my mother go through what she did. It was horrendous.”