Almost 20 years after she lost her mother to breast cancer, Nicola Downey found out she had inherited an altered BRCA1 gene, which increases her risk of the disease.
My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 32. She passed away after developing secondary breast cancer four years later, just before my eighth birthday. My grandmother also died from breast cancer when she was 50, and my great-grandmother died from ovarian cancer.
It will be 20 years this year since Mum passed away. I have always known there was this gene, which increases the risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer, and which my sisters and I may or may not have.
Dad always said not to worry about it until I was at least 18. I went away to university and was having the time of my life, and although I thought about Mum a lot, I didn’t think about how it may affect me.
When I left university and I got nearer and nearer to the age my mum was when she was diagnosed, it became more of an issue.
I went to see my doctor when I was 24, but due to moving from my home in Leeds down south, I didn’t have genetic testing until I was 26.
Nicola with her mum and three sisters
Getting my results
The moment I got my results, which confirmed I have the altered BRCA1 gene, I said I wanted to be referred for surgery. The geneticist who dealt with me told me to take a couple of months to think about my options.
I could have risk-reducing surgery, which would involve removing both breasts (a double mastectomy). Or I could be referred to annual screening from the age of 30, but I just wasn’t interested in that. The thought that I would have to go through the screening and then they might find something made me feel sick. My decision was always going to be surgery.
I chose to have my operation at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital.
I had to see the surgeon, a consultant psychiatrist and a breast cancer nurse before the surgeon would perform the operation. And there was a wait of at least six months to give me time to change my mind.
When I went to see the surgeon again in September 2015, I was as sure as ever of my decision, and was booked for the soonest available date, 15 December, which happened to be my 27th birthday.
100% happy with the procedure
The pain was horrendous when I first came round from the operation. I was in hospital for three days and the first night was just awful.
I was so swollen. I was really emotional and crying. But the nurses and staff were absolutely fantastic.
The first four weeks were the toughest. I stayed with my dad and his wife, and my eldest sister took a week off work to look after me.
Four months later, I feel about 85% back to normal and I’ve recently returned to my job as a paralegal for personal injury law firm Hudgell Solicitors.
The scars are still quite bad, but to look at me you would never know what I have been through. There is no doubt that I’ve done the right thing, I am 100% happy I had the procedure.
Since the surgery, I have questions about my body because it still feels slightly alien to me, but I think that will all improve in time. When I think about how painful and upsetting those first four to six weeks were, I can’t believe how far I’ve come and it was worth everything to not have to worry now.