Dr. Li Ge, a medical oncologist and hematologist with Fairview Lakes Medical Center, has been treating patients for breast cancer for 12 years. Some of those patients have been daughters or other relatives of former patients. That’s because, according to Mayo Clinic, about 5 to 10% of breast cancer is linked to a gene mutation passed down through generations in a family.
“Any woman in this country who has no family history of breast cancer, if all of us live to age 90, the average is one out of every eight or nine woman get diagnosed. If there’s a family history, that risk is a little higher,” Ge said. Ge said that risk enhancement level depends on the degree of separation from the breast cancer patient.
That is what happened to Meghan McDermott, a 28-year-old breast cancer patient in Bloomington (McDermott is not being treated by Ge). Fourteen years ago, McDermott’s mother was diagnosed with a serious breast cancer. Though the doctors weren’t sure she’d pull through, she did. She’d end up fighting two other rounds of breast cancer. She died in August of 2018. Eleven months later, McDermott was moving into a new house when she felt a pain in her breast and armpit, though she assumed it was just a muscle pull or strain. After a couple weeks, the pain was still there, and she decided to go into the doctor on her lunch break at work. At her breast exam, her doctor immediately sent her to a specialist to get an ultrasound. At first, doctors thought it could be a benign cyst, but after a biopsy, they learned she had stage 3 invasive inductal carcinoma breast cancer. McDermott is now going through some rounds of chemotherapy before she’ll have radiation and a double mastectomy.
The typical age suggested for women to get mammograms, a medical screening device to detect any abnormalities, is between 40 to 45 years old. Ge said if you are closely related to someone who has breast cancer, you should get screenings done 10 years before the age of the cancer patient upon diagnosis. Ge also added that most insurance companies will pay for a daughter’s screenings following the mother’s breast cancer diagnosis.
“For instance, if your mom’s age of diagnosis was at 45, the daughter at age 35 should get screenings,” Ge said.
Having family and friends as a support system is something Ge not just supports, but encourages.
“We like that approach because they can relate better, and we can get to know the family connection better. I encourage them to come to the meetings,” Ge said. “I feel knowing patients’ social networks and the family situation is more helpful for me to communicate with them so that they don’t feel like I just treat them as one person. They feel very assured and more bound to you and more compliant and more collaborative with you when they talk about their families.”
For McDermott, her diagnosis was difficult, but now she is focused on beating the cancer with the help of her friends and family.
“I’m only 28 years old,” McDermott said. “It was really scary to hear at first, but now that I’m going through it - it still sucks, it’s horrible and it’s terrifying - but I find joy in knowing that I’ve got all my family and friends to support me. And that I’m going to make it through.” McDermott’s latest tests show that the cancer is already decreasing after just weeks of treatment.
Ge said that while genetic factors in getting breast cancer cannot be lowered, lifestyle choices can. Ge recommends making lifestyle modifications to reduce the risk of breast cancer, even for those without a genetic risk factor. Some of those recommendations include reducing dietary fat intake, being proactive about maintaining a healthy weight through exercise, and keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum.
“It doesn’t mean you cannot drink, but maybe consider cutting down to a maximum of three drinks per week,” Ge said, adding that for new mothers in their late 30s and early 40s, breast feeding can be helpful to lowering the risk of breast cancer.
Ge also added that breast cancer is one of the most treatable cancers compared to others, and that the women she meets as her patients have shown her that women are incredible.
“They are very strong-minded,” she said. “Women can do a a lot. In terms of cancer, women are resilient.”
That resiliency isn’t always seen by others, McDermott said.
“Personally, [it’s hard when people] look at me like I’m sick. I don’t have any hair or eyebrows, and I look different than I did. With the general public, I’ll go to get a coffee and you can see it in their eyes, ‘Oh you’re sick.’ Just because I don’t have any hair doesn’t mean I’m going to keel over here and now,” she said.
McDermott is looking towards finishing up chemotherapy by beginning of December, and in January she is scheduled for her double mastectomy, followed by radiation and hormone therapy. Should all things go well, she should be cancer-free in March.
So how does one get through the emotionally and physically taxing process?
“My mom would always joke about pulling the cancer card when you wanted to get your way,” McDermott said. “It is a struggle every single day, but finding things that make me laugh and finding the humor and the goofiness that can come from all of this helps a ton. It’s poking fun at yourself and trying to find the lighter side of things. Finding things that make you smile and make you laugh.”