FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women in the United States. In 2019, there were 264,121 new cases of breast cancer in women. That’s the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One Fort Wayne woman is doing everything she can to never be part of those statistics.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to get to the finish line and hopefully live a very long and prosperous life with my kids and family,” Heather Regan said.
The 45-year-old mom of three loves to travel.
“I feel like I’m young and I love living life. I’m adventurous and I always have my health,” she said. “Getting breast cancer takes a toll on somebody’s body and mental health and I don’t want to have that.”
Breast cancer runs in Heather’s family. Her grandmother was diagnosed with it when Heather was a teenager. Heather’s mom got genetically tested and she carries a gene that increases the risk of getting breast cancer. Ten years ago, Heather got tested too. She was also positive.
“I went to a genetic counselor and she said you have this ATM gene. You’re susceptible to breast cancer, ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancers,” Heather said.
At the time though, it wasn’t clear how much of an increased risk she faced. In the last decade, however, the research has made a lot of progress.
“Ignorance is bliss, but I feel like there’s some benefit to knowledge and benefit to technology. Now we have enough research that I have a 60 percent chance of getting breast cancer. When I found that out, I thought, ‘Woah. This is something I need to act on,'” Heather said.
The family history of breast cancer extended beyond her grandmother. Her mother-in-law also battled the disease.
“After my mother going through what she did, that was very, very difficult. I didn’t want to go through that a second time with my wife,” Steve Regan, Heather’s husband, said.
Steve’s mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She had chemo and radiation and surgery.
“She was good for 15 years. Then it came back. And came back with a vengeance,” Steve said.
Now, Heather and Steve are doing everything they can to not have another breast cancer battle in their family.
“Rather than risk the chance of me possibly getting breast cancer, we decided if we could mitigate that risk down to one percent, why would we not do that,” Heather said.
After a lot of consideration and talking with her sister-in-law who is an OBGYN and a friend who had the same procedure, Heather will have a prophylactic mastectomy – traveling to San Francisco to a surgeon who does a new kind of surgery to keep her nerves.
“I still want to feel hugs. I want to feel like a woman. That was really important to me,” she said.
Heather’s surgery journey will start in December with a breast reduction. Then the nerve-sparing mastectomy surgery will be six months to a year later.
“I’ll go back out to San Francisco for two weeks. At that point, I’ll have all of my breast tissue removed. They will leave my nipple and they use cadaver nerves and try to use all the nerves they can spare. I’ll still have feeling and feel like a woman and look like woman. They’ll do the implants and send me on my way. I’ll still be able to pretty much look like a normal woman walking out of there but without the cancer causing cells in my body, hopefully,” she said.
Steve, who’s a dentist, knows there’s always risk with surgery, but says it’s worth it.
“I think the risks are far more minimal for the surgery than what you’d go through with the alternative. What you go through with surgery is predictable and knowing what the outcome will be is far better and then also knowing you’re knocking that 60 percent down to one percent, is a no brainer to me,” he said.
“I want to be able to walk my daughter down the aisle. I want to go to my son’s graduation. I want to hold my grandchildren,” Heather said. “You can be a pre-vivor. You can survive cancer, or beat it, before ever having it. Because once you have it, you have it forever. I would rather be able to be the person that doesn’t have to worry about telling my family that I have cancer.”
Heather encourages everyone to get genetic testing done.
“It’s a very simple blood test. You can go to your family physician or your OBGYN and ask to have it done. I would really recommend it strongly for any woman that has had breast cancer in their family to have it done,” she said.
Because of her family history and her genetic predisposition, her insurance will cover the cost of the mastectomy, but not the nerve-sparing technique.
Four years ago, Heather had a hysterectomy because of some other issues and her ovarian cancer risk. She also gets yearly scans to check for any signs of pancreatic cancer.