Stacey Sforza: Peace Of Mind

In a year marked by doctors' appointments and dates, surgery day was very important for Stacey Sforza. In four hours, she had two surgeries to get back some of what breast cancer had taken away.

Reconstruction surgery replaced the breast Sforza lost after her mastectomy and the removal of her ovaries to beat her cancer.

"Today was the beginning of the end of a long journey and as much as I might be nervous, I was looking forward to it," said Sforza on the day of her surgery. "This is my light at the end of the tunnel."

A month later, she begins the next part of her journey: recovery.

"My goal is to have you physically stronger than you were before cancer came into your life," says her physical therapist.

That was a little more than a year ago.

"I was diagnosed on Oct. 22, 2001," Sforza says. She was told she had inflammatory breast cancer.

"It just felt like I was pushed in the water and I could hear voices but couldn't make out what was being said," she recalls.

It was an aggressive form of cancer, one that required three different chemotherapies, radiation and a mastectomy. But there was still one preventive step Sforza thought she wanted to take from information she had researched on the Web.

"It's amazing what you don't know about breast cancer until you get breast cancer. I read a lot on the Internet, on the message boards, and other peoples situations," she says.

And much of what Sforza read helped her cope with issues that only fellow breast cancer survivors could understand.

"I get my support system on the Internet," Sforza says. "Every time I have a thought that it might change me as a woman, I remember my femininity does not lie within my breast; it's in my head and it's in my heart. What makes me a woman is not in my breast or my ovaries."

Sforza made the decision to go for genetic testing.

"This is my exact report, saying I'm positive for the BRCA1," she says.

According to statistics, women who test positive for the breast cancer gene mutation have a 56 to 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer by age 70. They also have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Stacey's genetic test results were the confirmation she needed to make the decision to have her ovaries removed.

"It made me stop sitting on the fence because there's a part of me that kept saying why would you want to cut something that is healthy for what ifs and for what ifs but genetic testing just helped me make that decision,"

Getting genetically tested is easy. Dealing with the results is another matter. But Sforza says she never had any doubts that she was doing the right thing.

"I wanted to do everything I could possibly have done so I don't have to look back and say, "What if I had done this, what if I had done that.' I can look back and know that I did everything I can possibly do on my end to prevent me from having cancer again," Sforza says.

Genetic testing is something very new, says Dr. Carina Biggs, director of breast surgery at Maimonides Medical Center. "The BRCA or the breast cancer gene was only identified in 1994."

The gene is associated with breast and ovarian cancer, she explains and notes that since only 5 percent of women who have breast cancer have the hereditary form, testing is not usually recommended.

"This may be only considered in a woman who has a strong history of breast cancer. A history of breast and ovarian cancer or when there's a history of breast cancer at a young age," she says. "It's something that's only advised for women if one is going to do something with that information. Simply to know that there's the gene present is really of no value."

In terms of options for women who carry the gene, like Sforza, Dr. Biggs says women who undergo an "ovarectomy reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer substantially. They reduce the chances for breast cancer by 60 percent. This is a minimally invasive procedure that takes an hour-and-a-half. A one-night stay in the hospital and reduces the risks," Dr. Biggs says."