When Erika Stallings’ mom, Samanthia, was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time at 28, Erika was only a few years old—but she knew something was wrong.
“I was very young when I saw my mom go through chemotherapy and radiation,” Erika said. “Obviously, as a child, I didn’t really understand, but I saw she had less energy and everyone in our house was walking on eggshells.”
Fourteen years later, Samanthia was diagnosed with breast cancer again—this time with triple-negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease. As a college student, Erika saw what her mother endured during treatment far more intimately.
Between Samanthia’s first diagnosis in 1993 and her second in 2007, researchers linked an increased risk of breast cancer to mutations on certain genes, including BRCA1 (discovered in 1994 by Dr. Mary-Claire King) and BRCA2 (discovered in 1995 by Dr. Alan Ashworth). Given her new diagnosis and history, Samanthia underwent genetic testing and found out she had the BRCA2 mutation.
“That obviously had implications for me,” Erika said. “I had a 50 percent chance of having the BRCA2 mutation, too.”
At 29 years old—around the age of her mom’s first diagnosis—Erika underwent genetic counseling and testing and found out she had inherited the BRCA2 mutation, as well.
“Even though I was sort of mentally prepared to have it, there also is really nothing in the world that can fully prepare you for that news,” Erika said. “I was shocked and sad. It was really overwhelming.”
Immediately after she got her results, Erika started interviewing breast and plastic surgeons to perform a preventative bilateral mastectomy, which significantly reduces a carrier’s risk of breast cancer, and she began biannual ovarian cancer screenings and an annual melanoma check. (A BRCA2 mutation is associated with not only an elevated lifetime risk of breast cancer, but also ovarian, colon, skin, and pancreatic cancers.)
“I didn’t want the risk of breast cancer hanging over my head,” she said. “My choice was very much driven by my mom’s experience. I think if someone had said to her, ‘Hey, you have this really high risk of recurrence. Do you want to have a mastectomy?’ Absolutely 100 percent she would have had one.”
Since her surgery, Erika, now 35 and an attorney, has become an outspoken advocate. She has written extensively about her experience as a previvor for publications including The New York Times and serves on the Young Leadership Council at the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.
In particular, Erika wants to increase awareness of hereditary cancers in the Black community—and to end disparities in access to genetic testing and preventative procedures.
“A lot of people know the 40 percent number—that Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women,” Erika said. “But many do not know about disparities in genetic counseling and testing. Black women are less likely to be offered this lifesaving option, even when they meet all the criteria. I didn’t realize how rare my experience was until later.”
She also champions the importance of research.
“I know that research is crucial to ensure that BRCA mutation carriers like myself have the best preventative and screening options as well as improved treatments for BRCA-related cancers,” she said.
Read more personal stories about breast cancer from BCRF’s Research Is the Reason campaign https://www.bcrf.org/research-is-the-reason.
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