During the summer of 2009, Tina Kelly noticed two pea-sized lumps in her right breast. Feeling strong and having plenty of energy, she thought for sure they were benign fibroids, which she had had previously. Just to be safe, she visited her physician. When a deeper scan revealed a substantial tumor in her right breast, Tina was utterly blindsided. She remembers, “To say I was shocked would be the understatement of the century.”
Though she underwent an immediate mastectomy, six months of subsequent chemotherapy, and then six weeks of radiation, Tina contends that the most difficult aspect of this experience was not losing her hair or even the physical pain of treatment, but rather the anxiety of what her diagnosis would mean for her family, especially her children.
More often than not, questions like “Who would take care of my children?” and “Have my three daughters inherited something from me that would put them at greater risk of developing cancer in the future?” clouded her mind.
A year after she finished treatment, Tina committed herself to finding answers for her daughters. Having tested negative for both BRCA mutations, Tina then reached out to Dr. Joanne Weidhaas, the founder of MiraKind, to learn about her work. After learning more and realizing that her cancer history could have resulted from the KRAS-variant—the genetic mutation Dr. Weidhaas co-discovered and was researching—Tina decided to order the test.
Much like the day she was told she had cancer, Tina was stunned by her positive result. “As much as I wanted to know, I really didn’t expect to have this marker,” she admits. However, unlike the anxiety that accompanied the remainder of her cancer treatment, a feeling of relief soon followed once Tina learned of her positive result.
She says, “I soon realized that having this information was a good thing for my family and me. In fact, for the first time since my diagnosis I felt more powerful than my cancer.”
For months prior to her test results, Tina had agonized over what had caused her cancer: did she have her children too late, was it because she never lost all of her pregnancy weight, was she previously exposed to too many chemicals in her career as a chemist, or was she too Type-A and stress-prone? Now, the mystery of “why” was gone, Tina says she is finally able to stop blaming herself for all of her other “risk factors.”
“Best of all,” she says, “I no longer feel the cancer will always be one step ahead of me. Knowing I have this variant allows me to outsmart it and that makes me so much more optimistic for the future!” Now working with her doctors to make sure her left breast is followed very closely for the rest of her life, and having pursued a prophylactic oophorectomy this year, Tina is extremely hopeful that cancer is a truly a part of her past.
Still, as a mother, even more important to Tina than her own battle with cancer is her ability to educate and empower her daughters with this knowledge. Before learning of the mutation responsible for her disease, Tina and her family assumed her daughters were also at an elevated risk for breast cancer. Now that it is possible to test for the KRAS-variant, Tina’s daughters will know with certainty if they are at risk.
As Tina says, “We know there is only a 50% chance that they have inherited it. Of course, I would prefer for the risk to be zero, but in my case, 50% is truly good news. Knowing about this genetic marker will help protect my daughters and help them make the right decisions for themselves without the added anxiety, and this is the most comforting thought of all.”
Tina remains highly involved with MiraKind working as a MiraGuide, or patient advocate, and informing the MiraKind mission with her patient perspective. She is passionate about sharing her story and helping others navigate their cancer diagnoses.
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