Any woman with a family history of ovarian and breast cancer will find inspiration in Joanna Gutermuth’s story.
“I’m very close to my mom,” Gutermuth, 44, told SurvivorNet. “We speak every day.” Gutermuth was born in Poland, but moved to Baltimore with her family when she was just four years old. She watched her mother battle ovarian cancer, and was aware that other women in her family had fought breast cancer. But it wasn’t until 2014, when Gutermuth was working in a medical office, that she connected the dots and linked her family history with her own risk of cancer. That year, she was offered genetic testing through her job.Read More
What Is a BRCA Gene Mutation?BRCA actually refers to two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that work as tumor suppressors. When either of these genes carries a mutation, damaged DNA may not be repaired correctly and those cells may become cancerous. About 44 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation and about 17 percent of women who inherit a similar BRCA2 mutation will develop ovarian cancer. Both BRCA1 and 2 mutations are more common among people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. With her Eastern European background, Gutermuth fit this genetic profile. Her test came back positive for a BRCA1 mutation.
“I Thought He Was Joking”
The positive genetic test spurred Gutermuth to make a difficult decision: On Valentine’s Day, 2014, she underwent a prophylactic (preventive) hysterectomy and removal of her ovaries, hoping to eliminate her risk of ever developing ovarian cancer.
Instead, the surgery revealed that Gutermuth’s genetic testing and decision to undergo surgery were too late to stop the disease. “I woke up in the recovery room and the doctor told me I had cancer everywhere,” she recalled. “I thought he was joking and I laughed at him, but he wasn’t laughing. He had tears in his eyes.”
When she was moved to her hospital room, her family was waiting for her. “ I saw my husband, my mom, my dad. And I could just see the anguish in their face,” Gutermuth said. “They didn’t know what to say because — what do you say?”
She was diagnosed with stage 3C4 ovarian cancer.
“We Are Strong Women”
Gutermuth’s mother was especially devastated by the diagnosis. “She blames herself. She still does, to this day. She feels very guilty that she gave me this gene. But I tell her that I’m a strong woman. She’s a strong woman. And we are just strong, strong women and we’ll get through it.”
Ovarian cancer has been called “the cancer that whispers” because symptoms are often subtle, making early detection difficult. Gutermuth, who hadn’t noticed symptoms before she underwent genetic testing, believes that finding out about her BRCA1 status is the reason she’s alive today. “If I didn’t have this testing done, if I didn’t go in for my hysterectomy, in a couple of months, I wouldn’t have been there.”
Gutermuth hopes her experience will inspire other women to have the test that may save their lives. “It’s very important for anyone with any type of family history of any type of cancer to take it seriously,” she said. Even if the risk is small, the disease, she said, can be “vicious.”