When her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, Marcia Petersen was only 15 years old. Even at that young age she had a knowing that breast cancer was going to be a big part of her life. It was a premonition that soon rang true as the following years brought more breast cancer diagnoses to her family. More aunts, cousins, and even her own mother were diagnosed with breast cancer. One day she was contacted by one of her cousins who informed her that she had tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation. BRCA1 is a hereditary gene mutation that greatly increases a woman’s chances of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. BRCA1 is especially common among women of Ashkenazi Jewish decent (2.5%), which is Marcia’s heritage. After that call, Marcia began researching and discovered an organization called FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered). FORCE is a national nonprofit organization devoted to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. This organization offers support, education, advocacy, awareness, and research for women who have a BRCA mutation or a family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
But despite being exceptionally well-informed and proactive, Marcia was reluctant to undergo genetic testing herself. Ten years ago, there were no laws protecting a person from discrimination by insurance companies or employers if they tested positive for the BRCA mutation. She was also concerned that her daughter would be considered “high risk” making it difficult for her to obtain insurance coverage in the future. But then Marcia’s thinking changed when her mother had a breast cancer recurrence and she realized that she could not delay testing any longer. So in 2002, she tested anonymously and paid for the simplest form of the test out of her own pocket. Surprisingly, despite her strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer and her Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, Marcia’s test came back negative for the gene mutation. She was relieved and they assured her that she was only at a slightly increased risk of the disease as a result of her family history.
Over the next several years, she was closely monitored with mammograms every six months. During that time she underwent two biopsies as a result of suspicious lumps, with the results being negative. Since these frequent mammograms were a significant financial burden on Marcia, her physician decided to change her mammogram schedule to once a year, despite finding scattered microcalcifications on her most recent mammogram. Unfortunately, at the end that year, on the weekend of her 49th birthday, her very next mammogram showed that she had developed stage IIB breast cancer.
She underwent treatment at MD Anderson and because she now had an actual breast cancer diagnosis, she was retested for the BRCA gene mutation. A full sequencing test was utilized and still this test came back negative for any gene mutation. However this time, taking into consideration her family history of breast cancer, she was considered an uninformative negative. This means that researchers still have much to discover about genetics and there still could be an as yet unidentified gene that could explain Marcia’s strong personal and family history of breast cancer.
Marcia has participated in many conferences and has been a passionate advocate for women’s outreach. She has been a volunteer for FORCE on their telephone helpline and as their Southeast Regional Outreach Coordinator, and has volunteered for Genentech’s Patient Access Program for the underinsured. She is a Reach to Recovery volunteer for the American Cancer Society, and she is currently volunteering at the Cancer Support Community Florida Suncoast. Her story has been featured in print and media such as the Biloxi Sun, Tampa Tribune, Rankin Record, People magazine, USA Today, and she appeared in the documentary film “In the Family” aimed at high risk families. Marcia has also been honored by the Center for Restorative Reconstruction for her work in breast cancer advocacy. Having recently relocated to Bradenton, FL she hopes to fulfill what she feels is her life’s destiny of working with women in a professional capacity to help them through their challenging life experiences.