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With no known family history of breast or ovarian cancer, Lake County schoolteacher Sandra McPherson had little reason to think she carried any hidden genetic risk for developing either form of the disease.
One of eight children born and raised in Colombia, South America, the 48-year-old McPherson did have a healthy curiosity about her family heritage. Last year, during a regular checkup with her NorthShore OB/GYN Edward Lee, MD, she asked about the possibility of genetic testing.
“As physicians, we often advise our patients based on their own health history,” explained Dr. Lee, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “That’s why genetic testing can be so helpful. When Sandra asked me about it, I was happy to encourage it. The more information we have, the better.”
Genetic Exploration As a national leader in using DNA to help patients predict and prevent disease, McPherson had genetic testing at NorthShore—part of Advanced Primary Care and the Mark R. Neaman Center for Personalized Medicine.
“When I got the results and saw that I had the BRCA2 mutation, I really just wanted to ignore it,” said McPherson. But her daughter Ali Oliveros, a 24-year-old biologist, insisted her mom take action since BRCA2 carries an elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
Oliveros accompanied her mom on initial appointments, with a genetic counselor and NorthShore Medical Oncologist Allison DePersia, MD, who specializes in caring for high-risk patients.
Critical Guidance Dr. DePersia laid out McPherson’s options—from increased screening and surveillance to preemptive surgery—to reduce her risk of developing cancer.
“While there are clear guidelines that take into account other factors including a patient’s age and family history, it’s a very personal decision,” noted Dr. DePersia, who also holds an academic appointment at the Pritzker School of Medicine.
“At first, it was very overwhelming,” recalled the mother of three from Grayslake. “But Dr. DePersia was so nice, supportive and calm. She explained everything thoroughly. I trusted her.”
McPherson underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery last fall and plans to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed later this year. “By doing the surgeries, I’m significantly lowering my risk of getting cancer. I’m a proactive person. If there’s a problem, I find the solution.”
Family First McPherson’s daughter did not hesitate to say "yes" when Dr. DePersia suggested that she, too consider genetic testing. While Oliveros knew her odds, she admitted it was still a bit of a shock to learn that she also has the BRCA2 mutation.
“I was hoping for different results, but I’m glad to know and can do something about it,” she said. Dr. DePersia recommended that Oliveros follow a new screening regimen for annual MRIs and breast exams every six months due to her higher risk. Oliveros also is considering bilateral mastectomy within the next five years.
This knowledge is powerful,” McPherson added. “I try to live in the moment, but I need to do what I can to protect my future and my family’s future.”