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…
‘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.