By Claudia Gilmore Gutierrez
Starting a new job in my third trimester was not in my birth plan. But I'd been waiting for an opportunity like this for nearly 15 years, ever since I’d received a phone call from a genetics counselor that forever changed my life—I’d tested positive for a BRCA1 genetic mutation.
I didn't understand a lot of the science then, and all these years later, I still struggle to untangle all of it. But one thing was clear: I would likely develop aggressive, early-onset breast and ovarian cancers unless I underwent multiple surgeries to remove every part of me that made me feel like a woman.
This was a tough pill to swallow, but I was young and resolute to do all the living I had planned on doing. So, at 23 years old, I underwent a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. And this year, now that I’m 35, I’m considering a hysterectomy to reduce my risk of ovarian cancer—cancer that took my grandmother from us and robbed this world of one of the brightest lights that ever shined.
My husband and I now have two precious little boys, Quentin, a rambunctious, inquisitive four-year-old whose favorite book is the encyclopedia, and Harlan, a four-month-old who smiles and giggles more than any baby I’ve ever known. There's a 50/50 chance they’ve inherited my husband’s normal BRCA1 gene or mine with its dangerous, unpredictable mutation.
That's why, at eight months pregnant, with bells and whistles and a few contractions, I joined the Veteran’s Affairs Million Veteran Program, so I can help tell the story of the 850,000+ Veterans who are enrolled in this groundbreaking genetic research program.
Participating Veterans give VA researchers access to their health records and roll up their sleeves to give a small tube of blood to science. Their blood is then genetically sequenced, helping researchers to uncover genetic links in diseases like COVID, PTSD, sickle cell anemia, hereditary high cholesterol and cancer. With this growing body of knowledge, we’re one step closer to a future where doctors can treat and prevent disease with military-grade precision—a future where our health, including that of my two boys, does not have to be determined by our inherited genetics.
To the Veterans who’ve already enrolled in MVP and to those considering signing up, you are the epitome of courage and service that I hope my sons will someday emulate, and it is the honor of a lifetime to share your inspiration with the world.
For Quentin and Harlan, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and wish you a very happy New Year.
Claudia Gutierrez is a mother of two, living in the San Diego area, and carrier of the BRCA1 inherited mutation. She first shared her story through Previve.com, documenting her journey undergoing a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy at 23-years-old. Now, over a decade later, she funnels her passion into communications and storytelling with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Million Veteran Program, one of the world’s largest research program on health and genetics.