Woman Fights Cancer With Preemptive Surgery 5-18-2011 - WNEM TV 5

Woman Fights Cancer With Preemptive Surgery 5-18-2011

Cancer is a deadly disease and the key to treatment is often early detection. But some people are increasing their odds by treating the disease before it even develops.
“I just knew I didn’t want to go through what my sisters went through having cancer,” said Julie Heilig. “So I wanted to do what was best for me to prevent that.”
Heilig, a Midland resident, is a so-called cancer “previvor.” They’re women who found out they had a high risk of developing cancer and were proactive in defeating the disease before it even started. “You get to the point that you are so nervous about any sort of lump, bump, whatever,” said Heilig.
Heilig was nervous because of a strong family history of breast cancer and the results of a genetic test. Heilig discovered she has a mutation of the gene known as BRCA2. It’s a red flag that she has a high risk for developing cancer.
“That puts them in a high risk group for breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” said Dr. Ellsworth Ludwig. Patients with that gene have a cancer risk that is 60 to 80 percent by the time they reach 70 years old. So their risk of developing breast cancer is substantially increased.
With the news that she might someday develop cancer, Heilig took the most aggressive path possible, electing to have surgeries to remove her breasts, ovaries, and uterus. The procedures were performed at Mid-Michigan Medical Center in Midland.
“It was just a peace of mind,” said Heilig. “Just knowing that you cut your chances by 90-some percent by having the surgeries done it’s just a real peace of mind.”

Between 5 and 10 percent of women diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer carry the BRCA2 mutation. Having this knowledge allows people like Heilig to fight disease before it even starts. How would you react if you knew you were predisposed to developing cancer? A major study performed at U of M Ann Arbor showed that most people opted to be told whether they carried a cancer-causing gene mutation when given the chance.
“Those patients who need the test are usually interested because we tell them , ‘you’re going to be watched closer,’ so it’s important to figure out who has that genetic mutation,” said Ludwig.
Heilig’s own decision is behind her, but that doesn’t mean she’s done worrying about cancer. She has two daughters in their 20s and they too have a high risk of developing cancer.
“And they both tested positive for the genetic disorder, and that was actually more heartbreaking that knowing myself, because now I have two young daughters that I have to worry about,” said Heilig.
For now, Heilig’s daughters are avoiding pre-emptive surgery. They don’t want to give up the change of having a family of their own. Instead, they’re relying on regular MRIs, mammograms, blood tests, and breast exams and, of course, the advice of their mother.
“You have this knowledge that allows you to be preventative and stay on top of things, instead of ‘we’re scared we’re going to get cancer,’” said Heilig. “I don’t want them to be scared, knowledge is power.”
Although genetic testing can be expensive, most insurance companies will help with the cost if it is necessary. Your doctor can help determine if testing is needed.
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