3 years ago
14 December, 2020
“I’m immensely proud of my sister. In addition to being chair of Breast Cancer UK, Wendy has a demanding full-time career as Chief Digital and Information Officer within the NHS, yet always makes time for BCUK and wants it to have a positive impact on anyone touched by cancer. Our parents, both now in their 70s, are also very proud of what she’s doing and achieving. Together, Wendy and I are thankful to be breast cancer survivors, and we hope the future is as bright and hopeful for everyone.” Lee Jobson
The year was 2003, and 32-year-old Wendy was pursuing her career in Edinburgh, while older sister Lee was married, living in Aberdeen, and pregnant with her daughter, Holly. Then Wendy was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“The shock of your little sister phoning you and telling you she has breast cancer is something I don’t think you ever forget,” says Lee. “It was very emotional. You hear the word cancer and always think the worst. You think they’re going to die.”
“We didn’t know she’d found a lump or been to an appointment. So it came from nowhere,” adds Lee. Lee initially found it difficult to understand Wendy’s reluctance to share the information with their parents. “Now I understand why Wendy was not ready. Because you have to sort things out in your head,” says Lee, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.
Wendy had a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and two years of hormone injections. Finally, the last treatment was complete. Lee and Holly, now 4 months old, travelled to Edinburgh to celebrate with Wendy.
“It was a long process and an aggressive treatment because of Wendy’s relatively young age,” explains Lee. “One of the hardest things was Wendy losing her hair. And when it’s all happening to someone you love it’s so much harder to deal with than when it happens to you. Not being able to change it, or stop it, is heartbreaking.”
Later that year, due to Wendy’s diagnosis at such a young age, Lee’s doctor advised her to consult a geneticist, who looked at the family’s medical history. The sisters’ maternal grandmother had breast cancer at the age of 69 in 1990, when the sisters were both in their early 20s.
“Granny had a mastectomy and didn’t need further treatment,” says Lee. “That was 30 years ago, and Granny is still living independently at 99 and keeping us on our toes today!”
Doctors were not overly concerned but wanted to be cautious, especially after Wendy’s diagnosis. After five clear mammography examinations and having just had her 40th birthday, doctors advised Lee to get a biopsy. The discovery of small, deep tumours led to a mastectomy and reconstruction.
“That’s when it all went wrong!” she says ruefully. “I had five years of corrective reconstruction, including fat transfers. Then, a mammogram on the other side revealed more tumours.”
Following the removal of Lee’s other breast, there was more reconstructive surgery. This time, it was successful. In the meantime, while Lee waited for the results of a genetic test, one of Wendy’s regular exams showed a lump in her other breast. At this point, as Lee says: “It didn’t take genetic testing to realise both Wendy and I were likely to have a BRCA mutation, which turned out to be a mutation in BRCA2.”
Although most breast cancer cases aren’t associated with inherited single gene mutations, those will generally be in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
Wendy had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Both sisters also had their ovaries removed, as BRCA mutation carriers have a high risk of ovarian cancer. Lee says the shared experiences brought the sisters closer together: “We can talk to each other about things because there’s an understanding that most other people don’t have.”
Although both Wendy and Lee are BRCA2 mutation carriers, the sisters have learned that diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence as early detection and treatment, as well as lifestyle changes, can reduce the risk of recurrence, even in BRCA carriers.
Looking to the future, Lee is aware that her daughter, Wendy’s niece, will want to be tested: “We don’t know what might be ahead for her, but we are a family of survivors, and technology is changing all the time. Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.”
With the current Covid-19 challenges continuing, Lee says Christmas will be a bit quieter than the normal, full-house celebration. Still, Wendy celebrates her 50th birthday this year, and as Lee adds: “I’m just thankful we’re both here and healthy. The genetic diagnosis gives you an understanding there’s nothing you can do about being a gene carrier, but there are some things that even BRCA carriers can do to reduce their risk.”
Wendy joined Breast Cancer UK as a Trustee in 2018 and was appointed Chair of the Board in December 2020. She was motivated to volunteer for Breast Cancer UK because of the research the charity does into prevention. Given the impact that breast cancer has had on her family, Wendy wanted to do what she could to prevent others from going through the same thing. She is excited about becoming Chair of the charity as she gets to work with an amazing team of staff and volunteers dedicating their time to breast cancer prevention.
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