At the age of 27, Sally Chapman was faced with the life-changing decision of whether or not to get a double mastectomy.
She had known for a while that the day was coming. Twelve people in her family had had cancer, and while Sally’s aunt, grandmother, and great aunt made full recoveries, her grandmother’s nine other siblings all sadly died after their diagnoses. So, it was pretty difficult for Sally not to be acutely aware of her genetic predisposition to the disease.
And after learning about having the ‘faulty BRCA’ gene, she made the huge choice of opting for a double mastectomy while still in her 20s. Sally’s mum also decided to go ahead with the preventative surgery, but was opposed to her daughter’s decision - insistent that she was too young.
“She was worried about my future,” Sally, now 35, told NationalWorld. “She was adamant that I was far too young. I hadn’t had children yet, for example. But I just had a different mindset - I felt like, what am I waiting for? I just thought, how would I feel if I got breast cancer, and I hadn’t done anything about it?”
Sally has since had children: her daughter, Frankie, is four, and her son, Hughie, is one. “People said things to me before I had the surgery, like about not being able to breastfeed,” she said. “But now I have my children, I’m glad I’ve done this for them - as well as myself.”
Sally had an increased likelihood of contracting cancer because of the ‘faulty BRCA’ gene. Everyone has a BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene - but a mutated or ‘faulty’ version can lead to an increased risk of cancer, particularly breast, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic. Sally had tested positive for the mutation.
“I didn’t really know how to feel at the time,” Sally said. “There was a lot to take in. It felt odd, because I wasn’t being told ‘you have cancer’. But I was being told, hey, you have this gene - and your risk is higher. It was also suddenly decision time - I was being asked, ‘do I want to do anything?”
While many people find the process of testing for a faulty gene, and the subsequent treatment decisions, a “challenging” experience, Sally said she feels “eternally grateful” for it. “It was awful when my grandmother got cancer,” she explained, “but now I feel like she saved me. Because I was given that knowledge and given a chance to do something about what was probably inevitable.”
Because of her “positive” experience, Sally felt like she wanted to “give back” in any way she could. So, she set up a charity, Pink Pants Trust, which helps raise money for the people who don’t qualify for testing on the NHS.
To be tested, the mother-of-two explained, you have to hit a criteria setlist marked out of 16. “I wanted to help those people who were scoring 14 or 15,” she said, “because a lot of people will feel really anxious about it and just want to know their results.” In a strange coincidence, one of the people who Sally had fundraised for, before ever meeting, ultimately ended up being the midwife who helped deliver her son.
“I also want the charity to help raise awareness for BRCA mutations and encourage people to consider the process,” she said. “All I would say is, it’s a personal choice, but the way I look at it - I just feel so grateful that I’ve had this opportunity. We all see the statistics, about 1 in 2 of us getting cancer. So if you’re offered something to prevent that, why not take it?”
To celebrate World Cancer Day (4 February), global life science company abcam unveiled two commemorative plaques to celebrate the team of 41 scientists who were behind the landmark discovery of the BRCA2 breast cancer gene. The plaques are to be installed at The Institute of Cancer Research, at the two discovery sites in Chelsea and Sutton.