When Stacy Zelazny first felt a lump in her breast, she didn’t think too much of it. There was no history of breast cancer in her family, and she was only in her mid-30s –– too young to even qualify for a mammogram.
The married mother of two decided to wait until her annual physical to bring it up to her family doctor, who ordered a biopsy just to be on the safe side.
A week later, the results came in: Stacy had invasive breast cancer.
Shocked, Stacy began discussing her treatment options with her care team. She was advised that genetic testing for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations –– which significantly increase a person’s risk of developing cancer in both breasts –– would help her decide whether to undergo a simple lumpectomy or opt for a bilateral mastectomy. For the average woman with breast cancer, there is no survival benefit associated with a bilateral mastectomy. But, for women who are found to have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, bilateral mastectomy can reduce the risk of dying of breast cancer by 50%.
The only problem? Genetic testing traditionally requires a referral to a regional cancer genetic clinic for genetic counselling, and a blood sample for genetic testing. It can take months to get an appointment and to get results back –– time Stacy didn’t have to waste.
“That’s when my oncologist told me that Women’s College Hospital was offering rapid genetic testing by mail,” says Stacy, who lives in a rural town in Ontario. “We enrolled, they mailed me a saliva test, and I sent it back right away. Within days, they called to tell me I’m a BRCA2 mutation carrier.”
The knowledge empowered Stacy to elect for a bilateral mastectomy –– the removal of both breasts. “The rapid genetic test allowed me to make the decision to be as preventative as possible in my care plan,” she says.
First launched in 2018 by the Familial Breast Cancer Research Unit at Women’s College Research Institute, the test that saved Stacy’s life is part of a national study aimed at providing all women access to genetic testing at the time of cancer diagnosis –– a first-of-its-kind initiative that’s helping people across Canada access genetic testing where and when they need it most.
“Had I not known about this study, I don’t want to think about what my journey would have looked like,” she reflects. “It brings me to tears to think I could have left my children without a mother. I’m so grateful.”
Every Breast Counts: Cancer information for Black women, by Black women
In Canada, Black women may be significantly less likely than white women to access cancer screening, undergo genetic testing for cancer risk, or opt for breast reconstruction surgery after mastectomy –– realities that are putting the lives of Black women at risk or reducing their quality of life following a cancer diagnosis.Read the next article