Telling it like it is The bravest trail­blazer

Wendy Watson is thought to be the first woman to have a pre­ven­ta­tive mas­tec­tomy. Many women across the world owe their lives to her – in­clud­ing her daugh­ter, Becky…

Woman (UK) - - Contents -

‘I did what any mother would do’

I’ve never re­ally con­sid­ered my­self to be brave. I hate fly­ing, and hor­ror films give me night­mares. but when my life was in dan­ger I made a dras­tic – some say brave – de­ci­sion. and it made his­tory…

I was just nine when my grand­mother lost her bat­tle with can­cer. But, five years later, more tragedy was to come when my mum, then just 45, was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer too. The ra­dio­ther­apy didn’t work, and she died 14 months later.

Just a teenager, even then I won­dered if the can­cer in my fam­ily was hered­i­tary. Would I be next? But when I went to the GP, he told me was I be­ing para­noid. So I tried to move for­ward with my life. In Oc­to­ber 1981, I had my daugh­ter, Becky.

But as she got older, I grew anx­ious. By then, I was a sin­gle mum. I wanted to be there for her – to see her grad­u­ate and get mar­ried. But would can­cer rob me of that chance too, like it had Mum?

Ter­ri­fied, I be­gan to re­search my fam­ily tree. It was then I re­alised just how much can­cer had blighted my fam­ily. What­ever was caus­ing it seemed to date back as far as I could trace.

So I went back to the GP who agreed to give me scans ev­ery three months. By then, I’d met my hus­band, Chris, and we were liv­ing in an idyl­lic farm­house in the coun­try­side with Becky, then 10. I should have been happy, but I was al­ways wait­ing for the day I’d find a lump.

Over time, re­al­i­sa­tion dawned on me. Surely the best way to en­sure I never got can­cer was to have my breasts re­moved?

While it sounds ob­vi­ous now, back then, I’d never heard of any­one hav­ing a pre­ven­ta­tive mas­tec­tomy. But, once the idea was planted, I couldn’t ig­nore it.

When I told Chris, he en­cour­aged me to go back to the GP. I was then re­ferred to a team of spe­cial­ists in­ves­ti­gat­ing ge­netic links with can­cer. There, they told me they were on the verge of a break­through – they’d found a fault in the BRCA1 gene, which was thought to cause breast can­cer. Af­ter all these years, I’d been proved right. They agreed to my surgery im­me­di­ately.

I wasn’t wor­ried about how my body would look and back then I wasn’t of­fered a re­con­struc­tion. But my friends were con­fused. Why would I have my breasts re­moved when I wasn’t ill and didn’t have

‘i be­gan To re­search my fam­ily Tree’

symp­toms? Still, when I woke up on the on­col­ogy ward af­ter my op­er­a­tion in March 1992, I knew I’d done the right thing. I looked at the other pa­tients who’d lost their hair and gone through gru­elling chemo­ther­apy. All I had were a few scars.

Two months later, I had my ovaries re­moved, as the BRCA1 gene is also linked to ovar­ian can­cer. Then, a year later, the test for the faulty gene was de­vel­oped. My re­sults con­firmed what I al­ready knew – I had the can­cer-caus­ing gene fault.

In the years that fol­lowed, more women were of­fered mas­tec­tomies. I felt proud, know­ing I had played a part in pav­ing the way for these op­er­a­tions.

Then, when Becky was 22, she was tested too. Nei­ther of us was sur­prised when we learnt she too was a car­rier. She had a mas­tec­tomy two years later.

It’s 25 years since I had my op­er­a­tion. I’ve been hailed as a pioneer and even awarded an MBE for my ser­vices to peo­ple with breast can­cer. But I did what any mother would do. Now, like so many other faulty BRCA1 car­ri­ers, I’ve been able to watch my daugh­ter grow up. I’m so glad I helped to make that hap­pen.

Three gen­er­a­tions

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