When Shvon Lowe felt a lump in her right breast just before leaving on a ski trip with her sister last February, she was just 34 years old. She went to see her Ob-Gyn who calmed her concerns but also referred her for a mammogram.
“I’d always done breast exams with the physician,” said Lowe. “I thought that maybe it was just fibrocystic changes.”
At her mammogram though, Lowe said she could tell by the technician’s look that something was really wrong. Soon, the diagnosis was confirmed – Lowe had breast cancer.
That’s when her cousin on her dad’s side shared news about that side of the family’s history with breast cancer. Lowe knew that her grandmother on her dad’s had beaten breast cancer but didn’t know that both her aunts had it too.
“One aunt died in her 30s when I was around 10,” said Lowe. “My other aunt I visited when she was in the hospital. I thought it was cervical cancer. I worked in health care but never thought about a genetic cause of cancer in the family, especially my dad’s side. It never dawned on me.”
Lowe went for her genetic testing and tests revealed a mutation in her BRCA1 gene. As the National Cancer Institute explains BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins. These proteins help repair damaged DNA and, therefore, play a role in ensuring the stability of the cell’s genetic material.
Approximately 55 to 65 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation and around 45 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70 years. Nearly 40 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation and up to 17 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 mutation will develop ovarian cancer by age 70 years.
Lowe came to learn that on her paternal side 19 women had the gene mutation and 14 of them had breast cancer.
“It was tough to take,” said Lowe, whose sister had to leave the country soon after her diagnosis. The sister reached out to others online to offer Lowe assistance and within an hour of the online post Lowe got a call from Dr. Jennie Bennett with Reconstruction of a survivor to recommend doctors at MD Anderson.
“By Friday, I knew what the plan was going to be,” said Lowe. “It was very comforting to have a plan.”
Lowe went through two courses of chemotherapy. The first was four rounds, one every other week. “I was a little tired, and lost my hair, but was still able to volunteer for the rodeo and my daughter’s Girl Scout troop,” she said. The second series was harder on her body but the end result made up for it – a 98% reduction in the one cancerous cyst and no need for radiation.
“God gave me the peace,” she said. “I want to celebrate and be strong, and support others while carrying the mission of education forward,” said Lowe. “People need to know to ask the right questions.”
Lowe is grateful too to the community at St. Rose of Lima where her daughter attends school. “They are like my family,” she said. “They threw my daughter a birthday party this year when I was in recovery after surgery.”
She regularly attends support group meetings with Reconstruction of a Survivor, speaking engagements with Sister’s Network and is performing with 17 other survivors – and the Texans Cheerleaders – this week at the game. In the future she might write a play with the proceeds going towards financial assistance for cancer patients.
Because of the gene mutation, there is a chance that the cancer could reoccur and for this reason Lowe opted for a double mastectomy. She will also have a hysterectomy in the near future.
“I have elected to do it, but it’s hard,” said Lowe, who still has an ultrasound every six months until she has the procedure. “I have a 9-year old daughter and had considered having other children but I’m glad to have her. My daughter told me, ‘Mommy, it will be OK. I just want you to be here.”
At 18, Sydney will be eligible for testing too. “She told me, “Maybe it will skip me but we will know what to do,’” said Lowe.
With just three months of being cancer free, Lowe now sees herself as part of an army with a common goal – victory.
“[Survivors] pride ourselves on giving back,” she said.
An oncologist’s perspective
Retired oncologist Theodore Tenczynski, M.D., C.T.R., still works at Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital through the American Cancer Society Registry. He makes the point that while 5% of breast and ovarian cancers have a genetic cause, the other 95% are not genetic but due to other risk factors.
“Women need to make sure to get their annual mammogram done in the same place each year,” he said. “It makes a big difference.
Dr. Tenczynski said that women should also choose a place with accreditation, like Memorial Hermann which is accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC), because they have excellent equipment and physicians.
“One out of every eight women receives a breast care diagnosis,” said Dr. Tenczynski. “The more you understand, the more chance you have to prevent it or pick up on it as soon as possible.”
With regard to the BRAC gene, Dr. Tenczynski said that the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), an alliance of the world’s leading cancer centers, offers guidelines about when to be tested.
First is early onset age of cancer diagnosis (age 50 or before), second is a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer before age 60, third is two breast cancer tumors, either at the same time, or from a second instance, fourth is a close blood relative with breast cancer before age 50 or ovarian cancer at any age, fifth is any woman with ovarian cancer, and sixth is any man with breast cancer. For every 100 women diagnosed with breast cancer, a man receives a breast cancer diagnosis.
Because of the Affordable Care Act, insurance will pay for 100% of the testing for qualified people, according to Dr. Tenczynski.