Genetic testing – would you want to know?
I love writing about inspiring women and Melanie Beckwith is certainly one of them. I sat down with her recently to talk about the BRCA1/2 genetic mutation, hard choices and finding happiness.
Melanie Beckwith is a typical Prairie girl…she’s tough and isn’t afraid of much. As a fascial stretch therapist at Crash Conditioning, she uses her petite frame to manipulate the bodies of professional hockey players and athletes almost twice her size. To say she’s strong is an understatement.
But losing her mom to breast cancer and the genetic testing dilemma she faced later in life have tested her strength in ways that she never could have imagined.
Melanie was just 11 years old when her mom passed away at the age of 38. She was raised by her dad and her Grandma and admits she had a bit of a “rebellious” youth, constantly pushing the limits and seeking attention.
It was her older cousin, Chrissy, who became a mother figure and helped her get her life back on track. As thoughts of marriage and having children started to enter the picture, she knew genetic testing was something she should consider.
Would she, like her mother, be a carrier of the BRCA1/2 genetic mutation? Studies show women with the mutation have up to an 85% chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. And, was she prepared to deal with the answer?
Initially, her answer was no.
“All I thought was that if I know and if I find out, I’m never going to want to get married or have kids, because I know I’m going to die. So, I pushed it to the side,” she says.
Remember, her mom died in the late 80s, long before modern-day advancements in the fight against breast cancer.
She went on to get married and give birth to a daughter, Jasper. When she was pregnant with their son, Brody, she decided to get tested. Yet another family member, an aunt, had passed away from the dreaded disease. She still remembers the day she found out she was BRCA 1/2 positive.
“I was putting a load of laundry in and the doctor called and I dropped to the floor. I didn’t cry because I was sad, I cried because I was scared.”
Doctors presented Beckwith with three options: to take risk-lowering drugs, such as tamoxifen, follow a program of increased screening or have a prophylactic double mastectomy.
The choice wasn’t obvious at first. But, after walking 60 kilometers in the 2006 Weekend to End Breast Cancer, and seeing her loved ones at the finish line, she made the decision to have both of her breasts removed.
“The only reason I had this surgery was for Jasper and Brody, so that I could remain on this earth for them,” she says.
Back then, her decision was considered quite controversial and she says everybody had an opinion. Her husband supported her decision, but others thought it was too radical and couldn’t understand why she would purposefully disfigure her body. Again, this was long before Angelina Jolie and others had gone public with their stories of radical preventative health measures. Beckwith was, in a sense, blazing her own trail.
“Just in the last five years, I’ve become comfortable enough to say that I’ve done it. People need education, to know they have options and understand that boobs are just boobs.”
Beckwith had one of the first combined prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction surgeries in Alberta. The surgery lasted 14 hours and she spent several months with tissue expanders in her chest to make room for saline implants. In total, it was a very painful 6-month recovery period, but she’s never had any regrets. In fact, she feels incredibly lucky.
“I’m getting the chance to raise the two kids that (my mom) never got to raise…I feel like I get to live through her, to do what she was put on this earth to do.”
It hasn’t been easy for Beckwith. Her 14-year marriage ended two years ago and she recently moved her family from Cold Lake (where she lived for 20 years) to Calgary for a fresh start. As a single mom, she’s constantly trying to balance being the best parent she can be while pursuing her dream career as a recovery specialist for athletes.
The whole experience has made her stronger and even more committed to living the life her mother would have wanted for her.
“I have an obligation to make sure my kids understand what happiness is and if they see me happy, then they are going to know.”
Despite being active and eating clean, Melanie knows there are no guarantees of good health. But getting tested and choosing a double prophylactic mastectomy was the right decision for her – she’s quick to point out it might not be right for others. She says it was the one thing she felt she could do to gain the upper hand on cancer.
Will her daughter get tested for the BRCA1/2 mutation? Melanie says Jasper knows it’s an option and it will ultimately be her decision, when and if she’s ready.
Thank you, Melanie, for this candid interview and sharing such personal information to better educate all women.