A custom cure
Preschool director Sandy Pilotte, now 41, didnt want chemotherapy, with all its brutal side effects. How would her young children, ages 5 and 8, react to seeing Mommy suffer from a treatment that was supposed to make her better?
Because her tumor was just a tad bigger than 1 centimeter (the size at which chemo is usually recommended), she was hoping to avoid the treatment. “I was really against it,” she says. “I thought Id just eat healthy and exercise.”
That was three years ago—just in time for Pilotte to take advantage of a new genetic test that helped her get the treatment that was really best for her. By examining the genetic composition of tumor, the Oncotype DX test predicted that her particular cancer would respond very well to chemotherapy. It did.
Pilottes cancer is gone and her prognosis is good. “The test relieved a lot of tension,” she says. “It was suddenly so clear to me what I should do. And the chemo wasnt as bad as I thought.”
Next Page: Gene testing [ pagebreak ]
By 2003, Amy Boebel, now 57, had undergone surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation for breast cancer. Along the way, she decided to take the test for the breast cancer genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2, discovered in the mid-1990s—which can also determine risk for ovarian cancer. Only 5 to 10 percent of women with breast cancer have mutations in the BRCA 1 or 2 genes; Boebel found out she had a BRCA-2 mutation.
Women with a BRCA1 mutation have about a 40 percent lifetime risk for ovarian cancer. Those with a BRCA2 mutation have about a 10 to 20 percent lifetime risk. And the average womans risk is less than 2 percent. Boebel didnt like her odds, so, following her chemo, she decided to have her ovaries removed.
Today, Boebel is cancer-free—and busy becoming an accomplished rock and ice climber. “After breast cancer it took me awhile to believe that I was going to live,” she says. “I think Ive turned around a pretty dismal prognosis into a really positive experience. Im free and clear. I live at 9,000 feet, and in some ways, I feel Im in the best shape Ive ever been.”
A widow who knew the ups and downs of dating in the best of circumstances, Claudia Edwards-Perlow was in her 50s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was especially concerned about what would happen to her breasts. “There is nothing more fearful than the word cancer,” she says. “You think your life is gone.”
Then one of Edwards-Perlows close friends, a breast cancer survivor who had gone through a mastectomy and breast-reconstruction surgery, put her mind at ease. “She lifted up her shirt and said, ‘Look! I felt so much better. They were gorgeous.”
Edwards-Perlow soon found two surgeons who would take care of her cancer—one to eliminate it and one to focus on the cosmetic results. During a total skin-saving mastectomy (a procedure that involves small incisions instead of a large cut across the entire chest), the doctors were able to save enough healthy tissue to reconstruct breasts that Edwards-Perlow feels are as gorgeous as any. “Now,” she says, “when I look down, I see cleavage, not scars.”