Hi, I’m Ashley! I look forward to sharing my journey with you and what I learned along the way. I made the best decisions for my family and me based on my family history, medical tests, where I was in my life, and ongoing conversations with my doctors. All our paths are different. Please talk with your doctor about the best options for you. Enjoy!
Generational Impact of Cancer
My Family History: In 2003, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV or metastatic breast cancer and unfortunately transitioned at the young age of 52 after a four-year journey. Shortly after my mother transitioned from breast cancer in 2007, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 53. He was so focused on my mother and being her caregiver that he forgot about his health. Fortunately, he caught his cancer early, elected to have his prostate removed, and is currently doing well. I knew the odds were against me as I was born into three generations of women affected by breast cancer. After experiencing my mother's journey and witnessing my father navigate his prostate cancer journey at the age of 21, I naturally believed I was next. I was scared. I had questions, and I had to educate, equip, and empower myself.
Genetic Testing: It was then that I took immediate action. I contacted my OB/GYN and updated her on my family history because our family history can change annually. She suggested I come in to discuss genetic counseling and testing for the BRCA genetic mutation. At 22, my Myriad BRCA Analysis revealed that I was BRCA2 positive, a leading marker for the disease. I learned that this genetic mutation increased my risk of breast cancer up to 87%, compared to the average woman who is at a 12-13 % risk over her lifetime. It increased my risk of ovarian cancer up to 63% and an elevated risk for other cancers. At the time, I was unsure whether I received the BRCA2 gene mutation from my mother or father. Although there are multiple breast cancer cases on my mother's side, I could have inherited the gene mutation from my father since he had prostate cancer, which is an indicator of a BRCA gene mutation. I believe the simple blood test I took not only saved my life but gave me the knowledge and empowered me to know my risk management options and make informed decisions.
Exploring my Options: In 2007, after genetic testing, my OBGYN referred me to a high-risk oncologist, but my pride and all my built-up anger got the best of me, and I refused to see her. I was still grieving my mother and worried about my father. I walked out of her office before I had the opportunity to meet with her. "This is not for me. They have the wrong person." I muttered to the receptionist as I walked out. I did not want to face or accept my reality. Being in her office was a trigger, it reminded me of the many days my father and I spent with my mother in her oncologist's office for treatment. It was the Holy Spirit that led me back to my oncologist. My doctor finally gave me the humbling experience I needed. She said, "Ashley, you have options. Your mother didn't have any options, and my other patients don't have options. So, let's explore those options together." And in a posture of full surrender, I let down my guard and opened myself to what she had to say. Her words changed my life forever, and I accepted this information as a gift of knowledge, not a death sentence.
My doctor shared with me my various risk management options and how they would lower my risk, hormone therapy (she shared that this would drastically reduce my risk by 50%), surveillance (she shared that this would aggressively monitor my breast and ovarian health), and prophylactic options (she shared that this would reduce my risk down to a below 1%-2% residual risk), we decided that for my age and current life circumstances, that ongoing surveillance was the best option for me. Prophylactic options could be visited at a later time.
I spent the next decade undergoing semi-annual breast MRIs, ultrasounds, mammograms, and transvaginal ultrasounds. Early on, I encountered medical personnel who said, "You are too young for these preventive services," and advised me to "Come back at the age of 40." I realized that those individuals were not informed of my BRCA mutation or increased risk. They were not used to seeing women in their 20s being screened for a disease that usually develops in older women. Breast cancer is no longer our grandmother’s disease. Through research, I have learned that Black women are diagnosed at younger ages, with more aggressive forms of breast cancer, and at advanced stages. Waiting was out of the question for me. Being high risk, it was important for me to be proactive.
Toward the end of those ten years, God blessed me with a husband and a beautiful daughter. I went from just thinking about me to thinking about my Legacy. While my early risk management options fit my lifestyle as a single woman, I needed a new course of action. Besides, I knew what it was like not having a mother, and I refused to allow history to repeat itself. I refused to be the fourth generation impacted by this horrific disease.
New Game Plan: After knowing my options as a healthy undiagnosed woman, I began to think about a prophylactic procedure. An oophorectomy was not an option since my husband, and I wanted more children. I breastfed our first baby, and it was a joy and bond like no other. During my first years as a mother, I prayed and conversed with my husband about my breast health. My screenings had temporarily been put on hold since I was pregnant and breastfeeding, but I knew it was time to pick up where I left off. I did not have time for all these appointments anymore, but that was not an excuse. The accountability was on me. I had seen my mother put her family and others ahead of her health, and I had the knowledge to break that cycle. I was at an inflection point. I had to pivot.
When my daughter was 2, I decided to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy or double preventative mastectomy. Although the potential onset of the disease was not supposed to occur until my 40s, this was the right time. I was between children, and I was young enough to bounce back. In December 2016, I underwent a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction the following March. My doctor told me that this preventative procedure reduced my risk of developing breast cancer from 87% to below 1 to 2% residual risk. I would continue my annual transvaginal ultra-sounds and CA-125 screenings (blood work) to aggressively monitor my ovarian health.
Recovery: Life after surgery has had its challenges and has been a humbling experience. My physical journey was all right, but the recovery took time. When my husband returned to work, I would have family stop by a few times a week to help move around. I am strong-willed, and my mind told me I could do things, but my body told me to STOP. I had to tell myself, "Ashley, please ask for help. Listen to your body."
In the months following, I had to be patient with myself and build my stamina and strength. I had to learn to listen to my body and doctors to recover safely and adequately. There were times I felt so helpless. Each day it got better, and eventually, I discovered my new normal. I attribute my quick recovery to living an active and healthy lifestyle prior to surgery.
I was not ready for the emotional journey. There were moments I felt less than a woman because I thought my breasts defined me. One of my fears was that my husband would not look at my body the same. There were moments I cried about not being able to breastfeed again. I also struggled with my scar appearance, but my husband has taught me to embrace them. I could not have made it through this process without him. I learned to remind myself that my mind, character, and strength define my womanhood. I have learned to embrace my scars because they tell my story; I have been "Gracefully Broken" and rebuilt with strength. On this journey, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges, but along the way, I have discovered my strength and purpose, and all glory goes to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
To date, my husband and I have finished having children. We had our second and last baby in 2019, and now I see an oncologist gynecologist, where I continue to monitor my ovarian health through semi-annual transvaginal ultrasounds and CA125 testing. We will consider prophylactic oophorectomy, a surgery that removes the ovaries and further reduces my chances of developing cancer when I get into my 40s. Right now, I am taking one step at a time. I also found out that I inherited my gene mutation from my mother. My father got genetic testing in 2022 and was negative for the BRCA mutation.
From Pain to Purpose: Over time, my story has evolved from the hardest time to discovering my life's purpose. Only God knows my ending, and through His strength and my family's support, I will continue to educate others and equip them with the tools and resources needed to make informed decisions regarding their health. I have been blessed to work collaboratively with organizations and experts at the local, state, national, and global levels to move this work forward.
Losing my mother was a defining moment in my life. Genetic testing was a pivotal moment in my life. Breast cancer aggressively attacked three generations of women in my family, and through genetic testing, my girls and I can aggressively and preemptively attack breast cancer and other related cancers.
Did You Know? In 2018, I authored "The Big Discovery." The story of a breast cancer diagnosis is an educational tool to assist families and children in navigating through a breast cancer journey. I was inspired to write this after my journey as a young child with two parents with cancer, my journey as a BRCA2 previvor, and a mom.
This resource aims to help facilitate one of the difficult conversations a mother could have with her children to help them understand the importance of early detection, testing, and a breast cancer diagnosis. The treatment process is introduced but left open so families can navigate their options and make informed decisions. "The Big Discovery" is a resource for non-profits, hospitals, and other cancer organizations.
I will be relaunching “The Big Discovery” with some amazing updates this fall! Follow me on socials to keep up to date. @PinkLegacy5050