Judy Werber helped shaped the lives of dozens of babies during her career as a home day care provider in Edmond. Werber's daughters hope their mother's story will touch even more lives two years after her death. Actually, they hope her story will save lives.
Wendy Shepherd, 35, and Stacey Holden, 37, both of Edmond, lost their mother on Nov. 28, 2010, to ovarian cancer just 19 days after the cancer was found. When they learned that, like their mother, they both carry the “breast cancer gene,” they were determined they would not become victims of the insidious disease that took their mother's life.
The specific gene is called the “breast cancer gene” because statistics show women who have it are at higher risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancers.
That's why both sisters decided to have their ovaries and breasts removed.
It's not an uncommon decision among women who are positive for the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutations, said Dr. David Burger, a board-certified radiologist at Integris Comprehensive Breast Center of Oklahoma.
“It's an individual decision. They have a 60 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. For the general population, it's about 12.5 percent or one in eight,” Burger said.
For Shepherd and Holden, the risk of developing breast cancer is as high as 87 percent, said their gynecological oncologist, Dr. Joan Walker . This is due to the sisters' specific mutation of the BRCA 1 gene, along with the fact that the sisters' maternal grandmother died at the age of 38 from breast cancer.
Everyone has BRCA genes. They are tumor suppressors when functioning properly; mutation of these genes is linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
“I've also had several patients that know they have the mutation, know they're likely to develop breast cancer, but they don't want to remove their breasts. So it's just a very personal decision,” Burger said. In these cases, doctors recommend heavy surveillance by way of frequent mammograms, MRIs and ultrasounds.
Recently, celebrity Sharon Osbourne revealed that she'd undergone a prophylactic mastectomy after learning she was positive for the gene mutation.
“As soon as I found out I had the breast cancer gene, I thought, ‘The odds are not in my favor',” she told Hello! magazine. “I've had cancer before and I didn't want to live under that cloud. I decided to just take everything off, and had a double mastectomy.”
Other celebrities have opted for double mastectomies in the past, including Christina Applegate and Kathy Bates.
Not as well publicized is the fact that women who carry the BRCA 1 or 2 mutations face up to a 40 percent likelihood they'll develop ovarian cancer during their lives, compared to only 1.4 percent of the general population, according to cancer.gov.
“My husband said once, ‘Would you get on an airplane if you knew there was a 50-50 chance it would crash?'” Holden said.
Shepherd and Holden were not willing to take those kinds of chances with their lives. More than anything, they said they don't want to leave their children motherless or for them to experience the excruciating pain that comes with losing a parent too young.
Within a few months of each other in 2011, both women went under the knife to have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. Holden went one step further, opting also to have her uterus removed. New research suggests that some ovarian cancers originate in the fallopian tubes, so removing them adds an additional layer of protection against cancer.
A little more than two weeks ago, Shepherd underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery all at once. Holden plans to have the same surgery in a few months. She would likely have had the procedure sooner, but said she was scared. She didn't know who would take care of her three kids during her recovery. She worried she'd look cut up and have ugly scars as reminders.