Breast Cancer Month

Mom takes control before cancer strikes

CREATED Oct. 3, 2011

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  • Linda Caulk and her mom Marie Wasmund in Egypt.

  • Linda's family: (left to right) son Richard Caulk, mom Marie Wasmund, Linda Caulk, husband Keith Caulk.

Newsradio 620 WTMJ is taking time out this week to go in depth and look at issues normally forgotten during breast cancer awareness month. 

We start with a new reality for patients... technological advances that now allow women to ability to know if they are carrying one of the genetic markers for breast cancer.  That knowledge is also forcing tough new treatment choices for the women who test positive.  I talked to a woman from Racine who decided to have her breasts removed BEFORE cancer struck.  The procedure Linda Caulk had is called a nipple and skin sparing mastectomy.

"This is going to help me have the full life I want."  It took Caulk six months to do the genetic testing and figure our she had the breast cancer gene, talk to her family, get the opinions of multiple doctors, receive counseling from a shrink and then decide to go ahead with the procedure.

Here was her bottom line: her mom had breast cancer twice, her aunt once, her great aunt died of the disease and and another great grandmother had it as well.

"When it comes to women with the BRCA mutation, it's not so much IF they get breast cancer but WHEN they get breast cancer," says Dr. Jody Brehm, breast surgeon at Wheaton Franciscan's breast care center. 

Dr. Brehm did Caulk's surgery.  She says BRCA genes take a woman's lifetime chance of getting breast cancer from the average 12% to 87%.  "Those women (with the gene) can undergo prophylactic surgery and decrease their risk of developing a breast cancer down to about 10%."  The prophylactic surgery is done to try to prevent women like Linda Caulk from ever getting breast cancer.  But the choice to have the surgery can be tough as women debate whether to have their breasts removed over the chance of ever getting the disease.

Caulk says as she was debating her options she looked at her healthy breasts in the mirror, "I looked at myself and said do you really want cancer?  Do you want to lose your hair?  Do you want to go through chemo and radiation?  And I've seen my mother go through this and I've seen my sister-in-law go through this and I had a friend that passed away from breast cancer.  So... those images were very strong in my mind and I thought well... they're only breasts.  And my husband is like, you know, I want YOU to be here.  They're only breasts Linda."

The surgery Caulk had in May is literally cutting edge.  Dr. Brehm has only done a handful of them.  In the procedure, all of a woman's breast tissue is removed laparoscopically and breast implants are inserted during the same procedure.  Dr. Brehm says, "What a patient ends up with is basically the same surgical scars as if they'd had a breast augmentation, versus the traditional mastectomy where a woman would lose both the nipple and the areola."  She says an oncologist is right on scene to test a few skin cells from the nipple for any signs of cancer.  If those scans come back clear the woman's own nipple and areola are reattached.

"So I still have my skin and I have my nipples.  They are mine," Caulk says.  "What I have when I look in the mirror are two scars under each breast but I look basically the same."

Caulk says the surgery may not be right for everyone but she encourages women at risk to get tested for the breast cancer genes.  She says she knows that for her, the surgery was the right way to go.  She wanted to control her future as much as possible.

"If I do get cancer, I can at least look cancer in the face and say I did everything I could to keep you from coming into my life breast cancer but you decided to come anyway.  I'll know in my heart I've done everything I can."

Caulk says that lets her sleep at night.