DALLAS (CBS 11 NEWS) - Vanessa Munoz might appear to have little in common with the fabulously rich and famous Angelina Jolie… except for fear.
"My mom passed away when she was 43 years old of ovarian cancer," says Munoz, a Dallas mother of two. "My Aunt, her sister, had breast cancer. My twin sister had cancer at age 30."
Munoz's sister survived but nature had already dealt the women in the family a potentially deadly hand. Genetic testing revealed that both Munoz and her twin had the BRCA1 gene mutation that has been linked to increased risks for both breast and ovarian cancers.
"It took me five years to make the decision," says Munoz. "My doctors were very supportive, they said, 'whenever you're ready: but, the sooner we do it, it's going to be better'."
But the road to "better" and reduced cancer risk for Munoz meant a preventive double mastectomy and hysterectomy.
"I wasn't sick, so I didn't need it. So it is really hard." But, then Munoz pauses—obviously thinking of her children—and adds, "When you have kids… I lost my Mom when I was 18. I don't want that to happen to my kids. I want to be able to grow old with my husband and see my kids get married—what I missed with my Mom."
Munoz, a medical assistant for a local OB/GYN, says she also wanted more children. So after having Mariana in 2011, she assured her son Benjamin that she would be okay and moved forward with the surgeries. She says once her decision was made, she was completely at peace… having reduced her chances of getting breast cancer from roughly 80% to less than six. According to her doctors the hysterectomy reduced her risk of ovarian cancer even more.
Jolie's announcement will likely focus far more attention on the issue of genetic testing to determine cancer risk; but, experts say the cancer causing mutation is still relatively rare.
"In the general population, this is estimated to be 1 out of every 800 individuals," says Annette Patterson, a Genetic Counselor at Medical City Dallas Hospital. " In the Ashkenazi Jewish population, this frequency is much higher – 1 in 40 individuals carries a gene mutation in one of these two genes."
According to Patterson, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes involved in tumor suppression. "When these genes are mutated, this impairs the body's ability to suppress tumors."
Depending on a patient's family history, some studies suggest that carriers of the BRCA1 mutation face a lifetime breast cancer risk of between 50% to 87%. So doctors often recommend genetic testing for patients with a family history of ovarian and or breast cancer, and especially if the cancer strikes at an early age.
"If you know that, then you can be pro-active, in terms of your screening, getting to specialists and be counseled regarding how you can reduce that risk, " says Dr. Alison Laidley, Medical Director of the Medical City Breast Center in Dallas. Dr. Laidley performed Munoz's double mastectomy; but, stresses that patients do have other options to reduce the risk or catch the cancer sooner.
As for Munoz, she says she is feeling great, and has no regrets.
"It took me awhile to be where I am right, now. But, at the end, it's worth it. It's worth it. I have peace of mind, I go to bed and I am not afraid of what's going to happen tomorrow."
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