October has traditionally been labeled Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But, taking a look at the two dozen or so women gathered in the Frobese Conference Center Auditorium at Abington Memorial Hospital recently, every month — indeed, every day — should be a cause for awareness and concern.
And so, in order to face, understand and discuss risks, AMH hosted a special screening of the award-winning documentary, "In the Family," part of PBS' independent documentary series.
"In the Family" follows the story of a young woman, Joanna Rudnick, 31, with a high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. At the age of 27, Rudnick tested positive for the BRCA mutation or "breast cancer gene," a hereditary mutation that forces carriers to basically live as "ticking time bombs," knowing that cancer could develop at any time.
In the film, Rudnick is faced with an impossible decision — to either remove her healthy breasts and ovaries or risk the highly inevitable chance of developing cancer.
Rudnick, who produced, directed and wrote the film, fully embraces the spirit of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Armed with the knowledge of her own family's history and the experiences of other women and families coping with the BRCA gene, Rudnick's mission is to prepare others for predictive genetic testing and the difficult decisions that accompany the results.
Rudnick has explained that her film is neither pro- nor anti-genetic testing, but rather an exploration of women living with this decision and their right to decide what is best for them.
"I really wanted to tell this story to help prepare other women," she said, noting that she called her film "In the Family" because whatever decision is made affects the entire family and family structure.
Perhaps no one knows that better than Sandra Cohen, now a Philadelphia Outreach coordinator for FORCE — Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered — who has been through the process herself.
Cohen, who was in the audience during the conference and was featured in the film, explained that her grandmother died of breast cancer at age 38, and her mother, who developed the disease at age 50, died at 54.
"Breast cancer isn't always genetic, but it can be. Today, I am working with women who are affected by genetics. Having gone through the experience myself, I found I had a passion for helping others, just as so many women helped me through my own journey," explains Cohen.
She continues, "When you test positive for the gene mutation BRCI, you can immediately do something. I was told my options. I had five different doctors talk about mastectomies with me. And, in the end, with the support of friends and family, I opted for a double mastectomy that has now erased the fear of breast cancer totally from my mind.
"I had the surgery done in 1996, and now the fear is gone. I am no longer obsessed with possibilities."
Cohen had already given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, before having the surgery. "Today, I am always hoping that something new will come out by the time we need to worry about them."
After the film, audience members were able to hear a panel of AMH physicians and nurses from the hospital's Rosenfeld Cancer Center conduct a question-and-answer forum. Included in the panel were Willard Andrews, III, M.D., medical oncologist; Meredith Kessler, N.R., M.S., C.S., oncology clinical nurse specialist and nurse genetic counselor; Betty Cummings, R.N., MSN, breast cancer care coordinator; and Mark Shahin, M.D., gynecological oncologist, of the Gynecologic Oncology Institute.
While some of the expressed concerns during the question-and-answer segment centered around health-care issues — including the fact that some health providers might deny care to women who reveal they have such a family history — the fear has been erased by legal protection against genetic discrimination, passed in May.
For more information, call the FORCE helpline at 1-866-824-RISK (7475), or go online to: www.facingourrisk.org.