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Family and sunshine warmed my kitchen table one Sunday morning in May of 2009. Shared laughter and stories were suddenly interrupted by a serious look on my uncle’s face: He informed us that his daughter, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, had tested positive for a BRCA mutation and that her genetic counselor had suggested our family should also be tested. In that moment, time stood still as bells and whistles went off in my head. I quickly realized that my three sisters and I might have the highest possible risk for both breast and ovarian cancer from our paternal Irish heritage. Our father’s mother had died of breast cancer at age 35. His cousin had early onset breast and ovarian cancer and died at age 59. And now her daughter, our cousin, had tested positive for a BRCA 1 mutation. Our lives were forever changed, when, soon thereafter, our Dad tested positive for the mutation and shockingly, one by one, all four of us did as well.
Within a few months, one sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and another sister with ovarian cancer. In addition to their chemotherapy, together we four sisters endured eighteen surgeries that year and a lot of anguish. As our family faced the complicated journeys and decisions of all BRCA carriers, we were blessed to discover FORCE and repeatedly turned to the website for invaluable information, guidance and support.
My parents started the Downey Sisters’ Fund within FORCE to help prevent others from being blindsided like we were. For the same reason, I have been passionate about raising awareness and money for FORCE through annual golf tournaments — the success of these made possible through the tremendous support of my community. Privileged to attend the amazing FORCE conference in 2012, I was also honored to photograph the mastectomies of courageous BRCA women in its Show and Tell Room. I am proud to be a small part of FORCE’s efforts to educate and support individuals and families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
Of course heartache continues in our family with the testing and journeys of the next generation, but we do realize that we have been fortunate to discover our mutation. We share our family story because it clearly demonstrates that "knowledge is power and hope." In empowering others with this lifesaving information, I also hope to impart our family’s adopted motto “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain.”