When I founded FORCE in 1999 it was in the early days of BRCA discovery and testing. I had my own BRCA testing in 1998, over a year after my diagnosis with breast cancer, and only after learning about hereditary cancer by reading a magazine article about BRCA. I immediately understood the significance and power of identifying people with genetic predisposition to cancer, with the goal of preventing cancer or detecting it early. But the technology was met with suspicion and alarm by many individuals and groups, even in the face of emerging research that documented the value of identifying those with a BRCA mutation.
I spent a good portion of FORCE’s early years explaining why our community was important. Back then the hereditary cancer community was frequently dismissed or minimized, emphasizing the fact that we were a small subset of a larger whole. Granted, we don’t represent a majority of the cancer community, but we shoulder a disproportionate cancer burden. And because of our extraordinary high risk for cancer and the generational aspects of inherited cancers, HBOC individuals and families are an overburdened and under-resourced community. We require unique research and resources that provide information and evidence-based solutions for the extraordinary issues we face.
We worked hard in those formative years to raise awareness, unite our community, and assure that both survivors and previvors were acknowledged as cancer stakeholders who had a say and a place at the table. We fought for awareness, educated people on the differences between hereditary and sporadic cancer, advocated for better early detection and risk-reduction options, and helped people make informed decisions. Along the way, we were often asked to justify the prophylactic options for risk-management, and even the need for a hereditary cancer advocacy group like FORCE.
As awareness has grown, FORCE has grown, and so has our voice in the cancer community. And yet there are still many areas of unmet needs when it comes to hereditary cancer clinical care and research. Although improvements have been made, current options for prevention, detection, and treatment of hereditary cancer are still inadequate. Too many people are being diagnosed with and succumbing to hereditary cancers, and the path to drug development and FDA approval for example for PARP inhibitors has been glacially slow. After14 years of passionate advocacy and incremental and modest gains, it would be easy to be discouraged. But as many of you know if you read my blogs, I also like to focus on achievements and advancements, and there have been many.
Once in a while, I have had the privilege to witness a landmark event, a game-changer for our community. Last Monday night was such an event. I was honored to be among over 200 people who attended the opening of the new Basser Research Center for BRCA within the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Established through a transformative philanthropic gift from Mindy and Jon Gray, the center is dedicated to the memory of Mindy’s sister, Faith Basser, who succumbed to hereditary ovarian cancer. The center is devoted solely to research and provision of care relevant to BRCA1 and BRCA2. Not a dry eye could be seen as we watched a video that included Faith’s story and how she became the motivation for her family’s endowment. The video also included stories of members of our community, who shared the devastating toll of hereditary cancer on their families. That night, all of us who attended and watched the video, listened to the speakers, and met the Basser Research team understood the center’s clear, overarching message: HOPE. I was witnessing history being made and a new era for the HBOC community.
Certainly our community will continue to face challenges, hardship, disparity, and unmet needs. But we have champions and a path to a brighter and more optimistic future with the establishment of the first research center dedicated to the pursuit of better detection, prevention, treatment, survivorship, and supportive care for HBOC. As I told Jon and Mindy Gray when I thanked them for this amazing gift to our community, “the cavalry has arrived.”Tags: brca, BRCA 2, brca research, brca testing, BRCA1, breast cancer, breast cancer early detection, breast cancer prevention, facing our risk, facingourrisk, FORCE, gene testing, Genetic counseling, genetics, HBOC, hereditary cancer, hereditary cancer research, previvor;pre-vivor;high-risk;breast cancer risk;ovarian, prophylactic mastectomy, prophylactic surgery