A Judge's Decision About Breast Cancer: 'Get Educated'
- It was 14 years ago that Jamie London, sister of Judge Rhonda Wills, died after a battle with breast cancer. Wills has been able to use her family’s tragedy to educate herself and shed light on breast cancer prevention and the importance of screenings.
- Wills’ new show, Relative Justice, made its national debut in September. The show combines Wills’ love for family and law.
- Wills decided to educate herself on her own risk of developing breast cancer after her sister’s death; she tested negative for the BRCA gene mutation. About 1 in every 500 women has a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
“It’s something very painful in our family, we hardly talk about it because it’s still incredibly painful,” Wills tells SurvivorNet about losing her sister to an aggressive form of breast cancer. “It’s a really difficult thing; it’s something me and my niece (Jamie’s daughter) both deal with. The reason I’m doing this interview is to bring awareness.”Read More
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Wills founded the Houston-based Wills Law Firm, PLLC. She also starred in the WE show Sisters in Law, the Houston-based television series that profiled several Black, female attorneys who tackled some of the toughest legal cases in Texas.
As her new show made its premiere on the national stage (the show airs on television in about 80% of the country), Wills says that, “Every day I live with the fact that I am high risk (for breast cancer) and this disease killed my sister. For me and my niece, we’re both very vigilant.”
Jamie’s Diagnosis; the Genetic Risks for Breast Cancer
London was 45 years old when she felt a lump in her breast while performing a self breast exam in the shower. She went to her doctor thinking “most of the time these things are nothing.” But after having a mammogram — the process used to examine the breasts for diagnosis and screening — and then a biopsy, her doctors determined she had breast cancer.
More testing revealed she had inflammatory breast cancer — an aggressive and rare form of breast cancer. This type of breast cancer only accounts for between 1% to 5% of all breast cancers. Inflammatory breast cancer differs from other types of breast cancer in several ways, but the glaring statistic in London’s case is that Black women appear to develop IBC more often than white women.
After learning of her diagnosis, London underwent a double mastectomy — a surgery to remove the breasts — as well as chemotherapy treatments. “They thought she would be OK,” Wills says, “but in three months, (the cancer) came back.”
London battled breast cancer for about a year and a half before she passed from the disease at 47 years old. She left behind two young children — 8 and 14 years old at the time.
“It was quite a shock when my sister died,” Wills tells SurvivorNet. “She died very quickly and it was very, very aggressive. In my family, we really hadn’t dealt with breast cancer until Jamie. I always thought you got chemo and you’re fine.”
After her sister’s death from breast cancer, Wills decided to educate herself on her own risk of developing this type of cancer, specifically getting tested for the BRCA gene mutation. The BRCA1 (BReast CAncer 1) or BRCA2 (BReast CAncer 2) genes help cells repair their DNA damage. Having a change, or mutation, in one of these genes increases a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer. These gene mutations are commonly passed down in families; if a parent carries a BRCA gene mutation, there’s a 50-50 chance you could be carrying it as well.
Between 5% and 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, according to the American Cancer Society. And about 10% of patients who undergo genetic testing will test positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, Dr. Julie Rani Nangia, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, tells SurvivorNet. But an additional 5% to 6% will test positive for other gene mutations, such as PALB2 , ATM, TP53, CHEK2, PTEN, CDH1 and STK11. These gene mutations can also lead to inherited breast cancers.
Wills tested negative for the BRCA gene mutation, so doctors don’t believe there’s a genetic link to her developing breast cancer. But since she had a first-degree relative die from this type of cancer, it puts her at a greater risk.
Rhonda’s Path of Self Education
Losing her sister tragically and suddenly to cancer sent Wills on a journey of self education, she tells SurvivorNet.
Wills says that she’s extremely diligent about getting her annual mammogram; sometimes she even gets them twice a year. “Maybe her (Jamie’s) outcome could have been different if she was getting annual mammograms,” Wills says of her sister.
Dr. Connie Lehman, a director of the breast imaging clinic at Mass General Hospital in Boston, tells SurvivorNet that it’s very important for women to get a mammogram every year, especially if you haven’t yet gone through menopause.
Wills is also “religious” about performing her self breast examines in the shower each month; she makes it a point to talk to her niece (Jamie’s daughter) about doing the same. In addition to these habits, Wills has implemented other practices to ensure her health and cancer-free life:
- Maintaining a healthy diet: Wills says she linked up with a nutritionist and figured out how to change her diet; eating healthier can lower your risk of breast cancer.
- Regular exercise: Wills began to regularly exercise — about three to five times a week, she says. “The important thing is to just find something you love,” she says. “Get out, get active, get moving, because all that will decrease your chance of getting this illness; I want to make sure other women are educated.”
- Maintaining a good weight: “I don’t do it for vanity,” she says, “I do it for my health.”
“Every day I live with the fact that I am high-risk (for breast cancer) and this disease killed my sister,” she says. “For me and my niece, we’re both very vigilant. Scientists don’t know everything about the disease, but if you have a first-degree female relative, it’s a higher risk of developing this cancer.”
“Early detection is critical,” Wills adds, “it gives you a better chance of treating and beating the illness.”