Understanding BRCA Leads Survivor to Beat Cancer with Aggressive Treatment

Understanding BRCA Leads Survivor to Beat Cancer with Aggressive Treatment

With two young sons and knowing she had the BRCA gene mutation, Hawthorne chose to treat her cancer aggressively, leaving nothing to chance. Photo courtesy of Keryn Hawthorne.

By Linda Aronovsky Cox

Keryn Hawthorne, wife and mother of two preschool age boys, young, healthy, active, vegan, educated, adventure-seeker and world traveler—she thought she had it all. Except she was the one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews with the BRCA gene mutation that doubles one’s risk of developing breast, ovarian and other cancers.

It all started three short years ago in 2015, when Hawthorne’s OB-GYN began offering genetic screening to her patients. Hawthorne had a family history of breast cancer, but did not think there was a genetic component since both her mother and grandmother were diagnosed after the age of 70. Her doctor told her about the increased risk of a genetic mutation for Ashkenazi Jews, so at the young age of 36, Hawthorne decided to go ahead with the screening.

Much to her surprise, her test for the BRCA2 mutation came back positive. Her first son, born in September 2013, was 18 months old, and her doctor advised her to go ahead and have the second baby she wanted, and then they could discuss the best preventive options. Her second son, Jamie, was born in July 2016, and Hawthorne continued to be monitored closely.

Sixteen months after Jamie’s birth, in September 2017, Hawthorne’s worst fear was realized. Through routine screening, she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in her left breast. Though the doctor suggested it was early enough that she would only need a lumpectomy, Hawthorne was leaving nothing to chance. She had to ensure she could raise her young sons, so she chose the most extreme option—bilateral mastectomy, removing both breasts entirely, along with full reconstruction. She assumed that would be the extent of her treatment.

But that quickly changed when during surgery they found the cancer had already spread to one of her lymph nodes. Tests showed the risk of recurrence was between low and medium, so further treatment was a toss-up. But not for Hawthorne. With the BRCA gene mutation, combined with her young age and her family, she decided she would undergo both chemotherapy and radiation.

Following four rounds of chemotherapy and 33 sessions of radiation, in June 2018 Hawthorne had her ovaries removed to avoid ovarian cancer, also linked with the BRCA gene mutation, plus she had a full hysterectomy, since one of the hormonal drugs taken after treatment can cause uterine cancer.

So how did Keryn cope with all this?

In survival mode, she said, with one foot in front of the other. She stayed as active as she could and did what needed to be done. Plus she leaned on her huge support network, including her mother who stayed with her for six weeks, and neighbors and friends. And because she felt the need for connection to a community and spiritual guidance, she contacted Rabbi Gail Swedroe and joined Congregation Agudas Achim.

But what also helped was her incredibly positive attitude.

“I got a free boob job, a tummy tuck (from the DIEP Flap reconstruction), and my kids got to bond with their grandma,” she said with a smile.

Hawthorne was selected to be a runway model for Art Bra Austin, a fundraising gala for the Breast Cancer Resource Center, and she will soon be taking a five-day Mermaid Cruise from Tampa to Cozumel, sponsored by an organization that provides vacations for survivors.

Hawthorne’s mantra is, “Live every day to its fullest. Live your life so that, if today turns out to be your last day, it will have been enough. Don't be afraid to try new things and always, always fight for what you want out of life.”

It has been an intensely stressful year for Hawthorne, and it is not without scars. At times she is angry—she is young, she lived a healthy lifestyle, exercised, never smoked, took care of herself in every way she could, and she still got cancer. But she knows that with the BRCA gene mutation, she was susceptible regardless of her lifestyle choices.

The year-long ordeal has also taken a toll on her children and family, and she has been treated for anxiety, depression and some stress-related physical symptoms, as well as having the beginnings of lymphedema (swelling from the backup of lymph fluid in the arm).

She is now at the end of this part of her journey, but it has made her rethink what she wants to do with her life, and she knows she does not want to continue her career in social work. It is too stressful, she says. But she still wants to help people, so in November she will be starting massage school. She plans to specialize in prenatal, oncology and lymphatic drainage massage.

Just last month, on September 22, Keryn celebrated the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis. All this took place in just 12 short months. But with her decisions for genetic testing, monitoring and aggressive cancer treatment, she has set herself up for what is hoped to be many years of anniversaries in a long and full life.

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish men and women carries a BRCA gene mutation. This is more than 10 times the rate of the general population. Learn about the BRCA gene mutation, which increases risk for breast and ovarian cancers, and hear more voices of those in the battle against it on Sunday, October 21 from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the JCC Community Hall, 7300 Hart Lane, Austin, Texas 78731.

Shalom Austin, Texas Oncology and Seton Breast Care Center are the primary event sponsors, with support from Sisterhood Agudas Achim, Congregation Tiferet Israel, Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women, Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood and Temple Beth Shalom Sisterhood. ■

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