In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, meet Karen Lazarovitz, who got a double mastectomy after finding out she has the BRCA gene. She is involved in many causes to help women with the same condition.
Karen, you decided to get a double mastectomy and hysterectomy at the age of 34, after finding out that you had an 85% chance to get breast cancer because of the BRCA gene. Can you explain us exactly what that gene is? How did you find out that you had it?
A BRCA mutation is a tumor supressor gene that is broken and therefore increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I was given an 87% risk of developing breast cancer and a 40% risk of developing ovarian cancer. My father lost his mother at a young age to ovarian cancer and his aunt to breast cancer, when our cousin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 9 years ago (she had the mutation) she reached out to my father and he went for genetic testing. There is a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation from either parent. Because he had the mutation, it meant that I had a 50% chance of inheriting it as well.
34 is pretty young to get both your breasts removed. Tell us a little bit more about your decision process.
The decision for me was quite easy. I knew right away I would have risk reducing surgeries. I felt that it was the lesser of two evils. I was more afraid of the pain and recovery than losing my breasts. My thought process was not the norm however, most women really struggle to decide if prophylactic mastectomy is for them. there is no right way to handle this diagnosis, only what is right for you. I just knew that i was going to do everything in my power to prevent getting breast and ovarian cancer.
How did getting a mastectomy change your relationship with your body? How did it influence your intimate relationships?
I have always had a difficult relationship with my body. I have always been very critical of myself. Since my mastectomy and reconstruction, I have learned to own what I look like. I do feel a bit disconnected with my breasts. I have no nipples and no areolas as well as no feeling so I don’t feel as connected to them anymore but I am completely comfortable with that. I spent so many years hating my body, It seems that for me it took a total mastectomy to accept that we are who we are and we should own it. Thankfully my husband was amazingly supportive so it has not affected my relationship intimately.
What was the reaction of your loved ones?
My loved ones completely supported my decision to have these surgeries. They understood the reason I was doing it.
Last year, you choose to get a tattoo rather than getting a “traditional” reconstruction. What motivated that choice?
Just to clarify, I was not personally tattooed by P.ink day. I did all of the research on my own to find my tattoo artist and decide what I wanted. I also paid for my tattoo. I had been saving up for it for the last little while. There was no P.ink anywhere near the Montreal area.
I learned of P.ink a couple of years ago. I was amazed by what the organization was doing and thought it was a fabulous idea. I had known for quite some time that I wanted to tattoo my scars. I wanted to define beauty on my own terms and I knew that an artistic tattoo was the way to do it. I also wanted to be a person and a voice behind the tattoo. It was important that people know that you don’t have to go the traditional route. I chose to leave one side scarred and only tattoo the other side. I like seeing where I have been and where I am now.
Once again, how did your friends and family react?
My husband was 100% supportive as were my family and friends. Those who were unsure as to why I was doing this understood once my story was told on Buzzfeed. From that moment on, I was met with so much love and support. Here is my story on Buzzfeed.
This year, you are in charge of P.ink Day Montreal; two women got the same chance you got a year ago. How did it feel to be “on the other side” of this experience, and be there for these survivors?
I am so proud of bringing this initiative to Montreal. It was so rewarding to call these two women and let them know that they would be receiving this gift. I feel honoured that these have allowed me to share in their experience and I feel that I received so much by being a part of their experience. I am truly humbled by their resilience and attitude in the face of cancer.
In addition to your “day job” at Hope + Cope, you also travel extensively to give conferences… How do you manage to balance your time between work and family?
Some days are harder than others but I am extremely lucky to have a supportive job that understands why I give back. My family has always been more than supportive. My family comes first but I am able to find time for my passion as well. I love what I do and feel so lucky to have found my calling that I guess it doesn’t really feel like work. It has always been so important to me to give back. I feel blessed.
What would be your advice for women who wonder if they have the BRCA gene?
It is important to be your own advocate. There are certain questions that you can ask yourself that put you at higher risk.
1. Is there a family history of breast and or ovarian cancer?, Prostate, pancreatic, melanoma or male breast cancer
2. If you have cancer, were you diagnosed early? before 45
3. if you are an ashkenazi jew (middle european) there is a 1-43 chance you have the mutation
Unfortunately there is not always a family history of cancer so again, it is always good to ask questions, speak with your doctor and if you are not happy with the answers you are getting, ask for a second opinion. It is also extremely important to speak with a genetic counsellor before considering genetic testing.
What have you learned about yourself through this whole journey?
I have learned that I am one tough chick! I never thought that I would be able to survive complications with surgery but not only was I able to handle it but I did it while raising young children, working and maintaining a happy marriage. I feel extremely lucky to have been given this information to be able to prevent cancer. Complications or not, I wouldn’t have made a different decision. This mutation has allowed me to find my passion and become a voice for others. I have learned more empathy than I ever thought I had and I have learned that life is precious. We only get one chance at it so I am going to own it all, the good the bad and the ugly.