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Buddy Check 10: Breast cancer 'previvors' beat the disease before it begins

Many women, including Maryville mom Erin Morrison, are erasing their chance of breast cancer before it starts by having preventative surgery.
Credit: WBIR

MARYVILLE, Tenn. — More women are taking action against breast cancer before an official diagnosis. Many are choosing to have a preventative mastectomy.

These women are called "previvors," meaning they beat breast cancer before it even had the chance to pop up.

The evolution and accessibility of genetic testing helps women who may be at higher risk for cancer discover whether they may be predisposed to the disease, according to Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Erin Morrison is a Maryville mom of three who took her predisposition for breast cancer, and her knowledge of family history, and decided to get a preventative double mastectomy.

She had that surgery and reconstruction in the spring and said she has never regretted her decision.

"Now I feel like I don't have that weight hanging over me anymore," Morrison said. "I don't feel like every six months when I go for a screening, 'what if this is the time they find something?'"

Morrison's mother, her mother's three sisters and a cousin all had breast cancer. Morrison had one aunt pass away from the disease in the 90s, the rest of the family members are now NED, or No Evidence of Disease.

Morrison and her family members all had genetic testing done years ago for BRCA, which is known as the Breast Cancer Gene. None of them were carriers.

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"But you kind of got this feeling that there has to be some kind of genetic component in our family," Morrison said.

In 2017, she and her family found out they all have the PALB2 gene. According to PALB2 Interest Group, people with that gene mutation have a 13 to 21 percent chance of developing breast cancer by age 50. 

Morrison does have a daughter, and there is a chance she has the gene. While she is only six, she hopes she will get genetic testing when the time is right.

"I hope she remembers that, you know, 'Mom was really strong when she went through it and she was okay, and it will be okay, no matter what my results are,'" Morrison said.

Erin wants to create a community for breast cancer previvors in East Tennessee. She has already created a Facebook page with a few members.

She said a lot of the time previvors feel caught in limbo.

“There are a lot of resources and programs and support groups aimed at women who are dealing with breast cancer, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot, just for women who are previvors dealing with a gene and a genetic predisposition for cancer," Morrison said. “You don't feel like you qualify for a lot of the breast cancer programs because you don't have breast cancer, but you're still going through a journey and a process with this genetic predisposition."

She believes there is power in numbers, and she knows she is not the only one with questions and support ready to give. They are on a breast cancer journey, it's just a little different than what's typical.

“It's good to have a place to bounce ideas off other women and see other women that have gone through it," Morrison said.

While Morrison is now considered a previvor because she went in for a preventative mastectomy, it doesn't mean her chances for breast cancer are ever at zero. 

"It eliminates your risk drastically," Morrison said. "My breast surgeon explained to me that there's still a thin layer of breast tissue left all along the muscle, and a thin layer of breast tissue under the skin, so your risk is drastically reduced, but it can never be zero.”

Insurance does cover a preventative mastectomy for women with certain breast cancer genes, and in some cases, once you have a mastectomy, insurance will cover reconstruction.

She encourages anyone who may have a lengthy history of cancer in their family to get genetic testing and to make decisions that will benefit their quality of life.

“If you opt to do genetic testing, and you find that you have a gene, it doesn't mean you have to have cancer, it doesn't mean that you're a ticking time bomb," Morrison said. “I'm hoping that we keep on identifying more genes and identifying more women at risk so they can take charge of their health and take control of their risk.”

RELATED: Learn about Buddy Check 10

According to breastcancer.org, about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. "For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer," the website reads.

Doctors encourage you to keep up to date with regular mammograms and do monthly breast checks to keep tabs on your breasts while noting any irregularities.

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