“You know, the thing is, I’ve always known. I always felt like I was going to get breast cancer. Because of the family history,” says 50-year-old Rhonda Richardson. Rhonda is the eldest daughter in her family of two younger sisters and one older and one younger brother who grew up in north Dublin.
From the age of 33, he attended a breast screening clinic for an annual mammogram because of the prevalence of breast cancer in her family: Rhonda’s maternal grandmother, three paternal aunts, and one maternal aunt all had breast cancer. Going to her scan didn’t make her nervous, she says now. “I actually thought it was great to go in and get the opportunity.”
When Rhonda turned 39, she was examined by the genetics team. As her mother didn’t have breast cancer and none of the older generations had been tested, her surveillance was stepped up rather than being tested for the BRCA gene at this point – with Rhonda now receiving double screening – an annual mammogram and an MRI.
“I was examined twice a year. The mammogram would always be December, and then the MRI would always be late May, early June.”
In December 2017, Rhonda’s mammogram was clear. “I went to the hospital on May 24, 2018 and had my MRI. I was gone for the weekend. When I came back there was a letter [asking me] come in,” Rhonda recalls now.
“When I saw the letter, I knew,” she adds, explaining that she knows a lot about breast cancer, having cared for one of her aunts during her treatment.
A biopsy and an ultrasound were done, and the following week Rhonda returned to get her results. “I kind of knew. And I just said, ‘Is it breast cancer?’ I was very lucky because of the family history clinic, because of the screening. If I hadn’t had a screening, I wouldn’t have known because I would have been underage for the breast exam,” says Rhonda, who was 45 when she was diagnosed.
She describes how her close family, who all live close to each other, immediately responded and supported her. “My sisters all knew, so they all came to my house. My dad came by and he came in. I will never forget his face. Oh my god he aged 10 years in that quick second when he walked in and I said, ‘I’ve had the biopsy and they think it might be cancer, but it’s very early days.’ I will never forget his face.”
She waited until her mother, who was away, came back from vacation to tell her – this was particularly difficult as her mother had breast cancer with her own mother and sister and was now watching her daughter get the cancer illness suffered.
Her treatment was to be a lumpectomy and 15 rounds of radiation. After the first surgery in July 2018, Rhonda’s doctors determined that the cancer had spread deeper into the breast and required a second surgery in August 2018.
The support from her partner, who she lives with, and her family is “outstanding,” Rhonda recalls. “We are with our mother every day. I didn’t drive when I had the surgery, but my partner took me to my mum’s during the day and then he picked me up and I drove home.”
Her radiation therapy began in November 2018 as she needed time to heal from an infection that developed after her surgeries. Rhonda is a taxi driver and found work helpful at the time. “I work for myself. I found going to work helped me. For my sanity. I would go to work for a few hours and then I would get my radiation.”
She completed radiation in December 2018. After being cancer free, she returned to the breast clinic where she has now been offered a genetic test to determine if she has the BRCA gene. She was tested in April 2019 and received her results in September 2019 – Rhonda had tested positive for the BRCA2 gene.
“I used to say I wouldn’t be surprised if we had the gene. I was for it.” but as the test approached, Rhonda became extremely nervous. “The day I was in the hospital, the counselor was there and I was like, ‘Oh god, I don’t know if I want to do this.’
“Even when I brought it up, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to do that.’ And I was actually close to canceling it. It was actually my partner who said to me, “Look, there is no such thing as screening for ovarian cancer”. Then I thought – I have to go.”
It was also the thought of her family that prompted her to take the test. “I have sisters, so I said, ‘Yes, I will.’ But I found that more traumatic than breast cancer. You always worry that the cancer will come back now that you know you have the gene.”
Rhonda and her two sisters had their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, Rhonda in April 2020. “I felt great after the surgery,” she recalls. She was warned about surgical menopause but had no symptoms.
“But this year I was really low – for about two to three months I was very low in myself. I went to the doctor because the estrogen completely went away after the surgery. They offered me antidepressants, but I said, ‘I’m not depressed. You know what, I’m going down Herb Street.”
Describing the impact of her diagnosis and how she has learned to deal with it, Rhonda explains: “It’s like a death sentence. It was then. I had great support from my family. Just for that… but definitely, when you get it first, it’s like a death sentence.
“It’s always on your mind in the first year after you’ve been diagnosed with the BRCA gene. You would go to bed and think about it, and you would wake up and think about it.”
She recalls being grateful she didn’t have children but feeling guilty to her sisters. “When my sisters went and got tested it probably sounds silly, I felt guilty. They have that gene. But as they said, ‘You saved our lives by going and taking the test’.”
She doesn’t usually suffer from anxiety, but now she’s particularly nervous during the scans. “I know the schedule exactly. The week after the screening, you’re scared. You’re crazy, you check the mail every day. You go home from work to see if the postman put anything in it. You always have this worry. If you don’t get a letter by the end of the week, I know I won’t get a letter because everything is clear.”
She now has four screenings a year: a mammogram, an MRI, and two clinic appointments. “I’m doing great, thank God,” Rhonda says now. For anyone who has just received a diagnosis, Rhonda urges them to take a moment to sit down and examine the pros and cons. “Think 10 years ahead. You get your surgery, it’s going to be tough, there will be emotions. It gets better. Because you reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer.”
There are two sides to this coin, she adds. “It is life changing to be diagnosed with this. But it’s good because you save your life. And you will also save the life of your children or your siblings. It’s life changing. But it’s also life-saving.”
Rhonda is a Breast Cancer Ireland patient and an Ambassador for the Great Pink Run with Glanbia, which will again host large scale live Great Pink Run events including Kilkenny Castle Park on 16th October. For those who can’t make it to live events, attendees can also attend “virtually”. All funds raised will support Breast Cancer Ireland’s groundbreaking research into the progression of metastatic disease and awareness programs nationally. Register now at greatpinkrun.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/a-diagnosis-of-the-brca-gene-feels-like-a-death-sentence-at-first-42052431.html “The diagnosis of the BRCA gene initially feels like a death sentence”