A CANCER JOURNEY
Breast cancer diagnosis shocks pregnant, young mom
At the age of 22, Alyssa Tremblay lost her 53-year-old mom to breast cancer — 13 years after her mother’s initial diagnosis.
For Alyssa, pro-active screening began when she was 26 after she discovered a lump in her breast that was a fibroid. But after that experience and the arrival of her own daughter, Gabrielle, she decided to do the genetic testing to find out if she was at high risk of developing breast cancer.
The young mother would soon learn she had the BRCA2 gene. For the 31-year-old, it brought mixed emotions. “It just felt like a shock but a relief at the same time because I knew I had the gene and that meant I could start taking precautions to hopefully eliminate a cancer diagnosis,” says Alyssa.
What is the BRCA2 gene?
While breast cancer genes (BRCAs) might sound like they cause cancer, they’re actually genes that control the production of proteins that help repair damaged DNA and prevent cancer. But when there’s a mutation of a BRCA gene, people have an increased risk of developing several different types of cancer—primarily breast and ovarian—and are more likely to develop it at a younger age.
Everyone has two copies of each BRCA gene—BRCA1 and BRCA2. You inherit one from each of your parents, and if one parent has a mutation, there is a 50% chance you will inherit it. Thankfully, BRCA mutations are not common — only one in 400 people inherit it — but the impact can be serious. Overall, 13% of those assigned female at birth will develop breast cancer sometime in their life. Those chances jump to 55%–72% for those with the BRCA1 mutation and 45%–69% for those with the BRCA2 mutation. People can take a blood test to check for these mutations if they have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or if they have Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, since the prevalence of BRCA mutations is higher in that group.
With the BRCA2 gene confirmed, Alyssa knew she wanted to take the necessary steps to help remove any possibility of her getting breast cancer, but she and her husband wanted another baby too, so she decided to wait.
Then, just one year later, she faced another curveball— a breast cancer diagnosis. First, an ultrasound and mammogram in November 2020 revealed a tumour in her right breast. “I just started getting anxious, and I started thinking ‘What if I’m not here anymore for my daughter and my husband?’ Everything started racing in my head.”
Then, at the end of the month, a biopsy indicated the tumour was cancerous. Incredibly, just three days earlier, Alyssa and her husband, Mathieu, discovered they were going to have another baby. “I was scared every day for my baby,” explains Alyssa.
In January, Alyssa had a mastectomy. That surgery revealed the cancer cells had spread to her lymph nodes, and they were removed. Alyssa then met medical oncologist Dr. Mark Clemons because she would need chemotherapy treatment, something she just couldn’t imagine for her unborn baby. But Dr. Clemons offered her hope. “He was so reassuring telling me ‘We’re saving everybody, you and the baby,’” says Alyssa.
Those words stayed with Alyssa through each treatment and each month as her baby grew inside her. On July 29, 2021, baby Audrée was born via C-section — strong and healthy — and Gabrielle became a big sister.
The next day, Alyssa and her husband held their breath waiting for the results of a CT scan, which had been delayed until after the baby was born. Then some more good news — all clear — the cancer hadn’t metastasized. Once Alyssa recovered from her C-section, she underwent 15 rounds of radiation treatments, and was induced into menopause — all to help ensure she’s able to watch her daughters grow up.
“With the advancements in medicine and the precautions my care team is taking at The Ottawa Hospital, my husband and I are hopeful I’ll watch our daughters graduate from school, get married, and have their own children someday. We’re planning for the future.”Alyssa Tremblay
The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.