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Series of Hope: Preventative procedures may help Forsyth County survivors daughters
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Susan Williamss two daughters, Hannah Smith and Morgan Williams, got tested for a genetic mutation that increases a persons risk in developing breast cancer after she was diagnosed. The daughters call themselves previvors and hope they will not have to become patients or survivors. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

The daughters of a Forsyth County breast cancer survivor are taking steps to help reduce their risk of being diagnosed with the disease.

After being tested two years ago for a genetic mutation that increases a person’s risk in developing breast cancer, the women have taken preventative measures —Hannah Smith, 28, undergoing a mastectomy and planning on having a hysterectomy — to reduce their risk of developing the cancer.

Smith and her sister, Morgan Williams, 22, are now calling themselves “previvors” so they will never have to call themselves patients or survivors.

Two years ago, their mother, Forsyth County native Susan Williams, 51, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease.

After finding a spot on her breast, doctors decided to test Williams for possible genetic mutations that could have caused the cancer.

She tested positive for a mutation of the BRCA gene, the best-known gene linked to breast and ovarian cancer risk.

Only 5-10 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the U.S. are due to inherited gene mutations known to increase risk, according to the Susan G. Komen website.

Given Williams had the gene and the disease, her two daughters also got tested, and their results came back positive.

Smith, who was pregnant with her second child at the time, decided once she was done breastfeeding that she would have a mastectomy and a hysterectomy down the road.

Due to Williams’s age and that she is not yet married with children as her sister is, she and doctors have taken other steps; she receives ultrasounds every six months and has a specialized breast surgeon following her and the tests.

While it is difficult for anyone to hear they have cancer, Smith said she had her two daughters to think about when deciding whether to get tested.

“It was scary,” she said. “At first, I didn’t want to know anything. But it’s much better to know everything. I had to do it for my family.”

She said she thinks her decision helped her daughters decide to also get tested.

“I [said] they don’t have to if they don’t want to, but they did,” she said. “Them knowing and being more aware of what could happen and being proactive is [because] of seeing what I went through, which [influenced] them.”

It also became more real after some abnormal spots on her breasts were detected during a mammogram.

This, Smith said, solidified her decision to get the preventative surgery.

“If she hadn’t had her mind made up before, she did once she went in,” her sister said.

Research has shown that preventive, or prophylactic, mastectomies reduce the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women by about 90 percent, according to breastcancer.org.

For the general population, about one in eight, or 12 percent, women will develop the disease, the American Cancer Society says.

In contrast, those with mutations on the BRCA1 gene have a 55-65 percent risk of developing the cancer, and those with BRCA2 mutations face a 45-47 percent risk, the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute says.

BRCA mutation prevalence rates are highest in Ashkenazi, or eastern European, Jewish women.

The mutation only affects about 2 to 3 percent of Caucasian women, however, the Susan G. Komen site says.

Williams said Smith’s mastectomy and ultimate hysterectomy will reduce her chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer to less than 2 percent, a number even lower than that of the general population.

And Williams, too, will make a decision of what avenue to pursue when the time comes.

Both understand the seriousness of the disease — their mother is once again fighting it, now in her lungs.

“It’s hard not to let it be right there in your forethought — you just want it to go away,” Williams said.

She is scheduled for a scan on Halloween to see how the treatment is progressing.

For now, though, the goal, Williams said, for all three women is to “just keep on living.”