JO DAVISON: Our family’s battle to beat cancer...

At risk?: Dawn Anderson and her sons, Jordan, aged 14, and Cameron, 11, who will have genetic testing when they are 16.
At risk?: Dawn Anderson and her sons, Jordan, aged 14, and Cameron, 11, who will have genetic testing when they are 16.
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Booby Dawn, they used to call her.

And the Brinsworth WeightWatchers leader had always taken it as a complement.

At risk:  Vickie has discovered she has passed on the gene to daughter Bethanie.

At risk: Vickie has discovered she has passed on the gene to daughter Bethanie.

She was proud of her 38E-cup bust.

But not any more.

Now, she loathes them and cannot wait for them to be cut away in a double mastectomy.

She is even celebrating her date with the surgeon. She is planning to throw a Goodbye Boobs party for friends and family.

Smiles all round on Dawn's wedding day in 1996.  Sisters Vickie Hobson, right, and Dawn and their mother Lorraine Wilkin had no idea they shared the faulty gene.                                  Pictures: Steve Ellis

Smiles all round on Dawn's wedding day in 1996. Sisters Vickie Hobson, right, and Dawn and their mother Lorraine Wilkin had no idea they shared the faulty gene. Pictures: Steve Ellis

It will be a raucous affair with fancy dress, dancing and a cake with candles.

But the reason Dawn is having her figure so dramatically changed is not at all frivolous; it has nothing to do with vanity, or image.

She’s doing it to save her life.

Dawn has discovered she carries the mutant BRCA 2 cancer gene that killed her mother five years ago and gave her sister Vickie Hobson breast cancer at the age of 39.

The brutal truth is, she is five times more likely to contract breast or ovarian cancer .

“It’s major surgery and it is going to drastically change my body, but I can’t wait for the operation in May,” she says.

“Every day could be the day I get cancer. It feels like there’s a time-bomb ticking away inside me and I want it defused.”

Already, Dawn has had a full hysterectomy to reduce her risk.

“It feels like everything that makes you a woman is potentially your killer,” she says.

Sister Vickie understands the sentiment only too well.

When she got breast cancer and needed a lumpectomy and radiotherapy three years ago, everyone assumed her lifestyle was to blame.

A former landlady at the Fox and Duck in Tinsley, by her own admission she loved to smoke, drink and party.

But after specialists looked into her family history, it was discovered she had inherited the BRCA 2 gene mutation.

Their mother Lorraine must have inherited the defective gene, too – although too little is known of her family’s medical history to trace it back to previous generations.

Future generations will be protected, though. Four members of the family elected to be tested by cancer specialists at Rotherham General Hospital.

Everyone was hoping for the all-clear, but it was devastating news for Dawn, and Vickie’s daughter Bethanie.

Dawn had originally asked for a test back in 2001 shortly after her mum had been diagnosed – but was told there was no such thing as hereditary cancer.

She went back again after her sister’s illness became apparent.

“My doctor told me I was being paranoid. I was to stop being paranoid and to go way and get on with my life,” she says.

“How can you, though, when there might not actually be much of a life mapped out for you? ”

My mum had died two years before Vickie got breast cancer. I felt sure there was a link and I wanted to know if I was at risk.”

A few months ago, when she was finally told she was a carrier, she likened it to feeling she had been punched in the face. But she has no regrets. It’s relief she feels.

She says: “I can now get something done to try to prevent it.

“I’d always loved having big, sexy boobs but the minute I knew there was a high risk they would give me cancer, I wanted shut of them.

“The other option was to have annual check-ups for the rest of my life, then have surgery if a tumour was ever detected.

“But I couldn’t have faced the worry and stress of waiting for the tests year after year. Because I have such a high chance of getting cancer it would have felt like playing Russian roulette – with a gun with five bullets and only one blank being held to my head.

“Getting rid of everything and starting again was the practical, rational solution.

“I can’t wait for the operation. I am scared but I want my life back. Cancer has haunted our entire family for the last ten years. We think being tested, then acting on it, is the way to stop it in its tracks - and prevent it from affecting future generations.”

Dawn is determined her two sons will be tested when they are old enough - male carriers of the gene have an increased risk of prostrate and testicular cancer – and breast cancer. If they have the gene, they can also pass it on to their children.

The party to bid farewell to Dawn’s boobs will be held on May 6 at the Green Dragon in Kimberworth, just 12 days before she goes under the knife. Guests have been asked to come in fancy dress – the theme is pink and men are asked to wear bras – and money will be raised for the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline.

Based in Bakewell, the charity is run by Wendy Watson, one of the first women in the UK to undergo an elective double mastectomy.

FACTFILE

The names BRCA1 and BRCA2 stand for breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and breast cancer susceptibility gene 2. The genes are tumour suppressors and mutation of these genes greatly increases a woman’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, at an early age, before menopause.

It also puts them at higher risk of pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, gall bladder and bile duct cancer, and melanoma.

Men with these mutations also have an increased risk of breast cancer, testicular and prostate cancer.

Genetic tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are carried out on blood samples. Genetic counselling is recommended before and after.

However, not every woman who has a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation will develop breast and/or ovarian cancer.

About 12 percent of women (120 out of 1,000) population will develop breast cancer.

But a woman who has inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer. It affects around 60 percent of women (600 out of 1,000) who have inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2.

National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline: 01629 813000.

Operation the right thing to do

All her life, Vickie Hobson had dreamed of a boob job.

“My bust was a lot smaller than Dawn’s and our mum’s. I so wished I could afford an operation to make mine bigger,” she says, with a wry smile.

Vickie has just had a very different kind of breast surgery. And even though it has gone badly wrong and she could now be disfigured for life, she knows she did the right thing. The only thing.

“I look in the mirror now and I’m a road-map of scars. It is so distressing, but what matters far more is that the operation could well have saved my life.”

She had thought her battle with breast cancer some three years earlier was behind her, but on learning she had inherited the BRCA 2 gene from her mother, Lorraine, she realised more drastic action was needed.

Because she had already had cancer, evidence of the gene meant it was highly likely cancer would return. She chose to have a hysterectomy, followed by a full mastectomy combined with reconstructive surgery four months ago. Muscles had to be taken from her back to form new breasts.

Afterwards part of the blood supply to her new breasts died. She was left with an open wound and months of pain and now faces another operation to attempt to put things right.

She says: “After what I’ve had to go through, I’d slap any woman who told me she wanted breast enhancement surgery just for vanity’s sake.”

“I have been so ill; the risks are so huge, yet women have their breasts cut open on a whim,” she says.

“Some people said they thought Dawn and I were being really extreme, but when you are living with the fear of every lump and bump being a new tumour, it so terrifying,” says Vickie. “Having my breasts and womb taken away will hopefully mean I will be around for my girls as they grow up.”

Bekka, 20, found she doesn’t have the gene so any children she has in the future will also be clear. But it’s a different story for Bethanie, 17.

“For now, she has decided to opt for yearly scans. But one day she may have to make the same decision I did and have surgery,” says Vickie. “And if she chooses to be a mother she will have to make some very big decisions which will affect her children’s cancer risks.

“I want to be there to support her. I know it’s come down the family for generations, but as her mother I’m racked with guilt that I have given it to her, just as our mother would have been had she lived to find out that she had passed it on to me and Dawn.”