VB Gives Back

#VBGIVESBACK: Mindy Gray and Shari Potter

October 1, 2016

We are honored to support the Basser Center for BRCA as part of our ongoing #VBGIVESBACK program and will be donating $10 of every VeronicaBeard.com order in October to the cause. Learn more about BRCA from sisters Mindy Gray and Shari Potter in the interview below.

Before Mindy Gray and Shari Potter’s older sister, Faith, passed away from ovarian cancer in 2002, they had never heard of a BRCA gene mutation. As they explored their family history and learned more about what mutations in these genes meant, it was the beginning of a journey for them as sisters.

In 2012, Mindy and her husband, Jon Gray, established the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in honor of Faith. Shari and her husband, Len Potter, created the Basser Global Prize initiative at the Center to fund BRCA research. They have since dedicated their lives to the research and awareness of BRCA- related cancers.

What exactly is BRCA?

Every person is born with BRCA genes that regulate DNA repair and thus prevent tumors from occurring. Many people think BRCA genes are bad, but they are actually the good players in this. It is having a BRCA gene mutation that can be bad since it leads to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Women with a mutation have up to an 80% lifetime risk of breast cancer (men can get breast cancer too but less frequently) and up to a 45% lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. There is also increased risk for both men and women with BRCA mutations for melanoma and pancreatic cancer. Men with BRCA mutation have up to a 25% lifetime risk of prostate cancer. So these are scary statistics.

How did your sister Faith’s cancer diagnosis and discovery of the BRCA mutation change your lives?

When Faith’s BRCA mutation status was uncovered, we dove in deep to better understand what it meant not just for her, but also for generations to come. One of the most insidious parts of this genetic mutation is that it can be passed down generation after generation after generation. So when BRCA entered our lives, we soon realized it was a formidable foe.

What were you most surprised to learn about the BRCA mutations through your sister’s diagnosis?

Our father is 98 and a first generation immigrant to the United States. When his parents emigrated from Russia, they had their family history stored in their heads, but nowhere else. Our dad’s mom died in her 20’s and his sister died when she was only 8, so they passed away before the onset of breast or ovarian cancers. The discovery of BRCA happened as recently as the 1990’s so this wasn’t even on anyone’s radar. Our story highlights how this mutation can seem silent until it strikes. There are families out there who have a mutation lurking and it is our mission to open their eyes to potential risks. One in 40 people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are carriers but other demographic groups are affected too.

What is your advice for those who have a history of the BRCA mutation in their family?

We urge everyone to look closely at his or her family history. In cases like our family where there simply was no recorded history, meet with a genetic counselor to consider being tested. Our website basser.org has a tool for finding a credited genetic counselor in your area and all it takes is a simple saliva swab or blood test.

Be wary of what you read on the Internet! It can be the source of not only scary, but also wildly inaccurate information. And if you do test positive for a BRCA mutation, we know how life-shattering the news can be, but remember that there are life-saving options. Prophylactic surgeries can reduce your risk of breast and ovarian cancer to very low percentages.

What is your advice to women who choose prophylactic surgery?

The one piece of good news about the BRCA mutation is that there are steps you can take to significantly reduce your cancer risks. Removal of your breasts, fallopian tubes and ovaries are lousy choices but they do work and, for many women, the comfort that comes with reducing the risk of cancer is worth the trade-off. Remember: you are taking control of your body and your life and are making the choice to avoid the extraordinarily high-risk of developing a cancer that could kill you. We would suggest interviewing several doctors to find the right fit for you. You will emerge from this process stronger, healthier, empowered and with a greater peace of mind.

What inspired you to establish the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center?

A Google search of “BRCA research” led us to Dr. Susan Domchek. (A caveat to our earlier advice. Sometimes the Internet can lead to amazing things!) Every time we searched, her impressive studies appeared, and we were immediately impressed by the depth and breadth of her research. Sometimes things are just meant to be because, quite uncharacteristically, we decided to pick up the phone and call her, and she not only answered our cold call, but also took over an hour to thoughtfully and compassionately describe all the nuances of BRCA mutations.

A few months after this call, we decided to establish the Basser Center for BRCA, named in memory of our sister Faith Basser. The Abramson Cancer Center is a world leader in cancer research and care and we are native Philadelphians, as well as graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, so this felt like it was meant to be.

Len and Shari Potter, Mindy and Jon Gray

What sets the Basser Center apart from other cancer research centers?

The Basser Center is the first and only center in the world solely devoted to BRCA. It is a beaker to bedside hub committed to everything from funding research across the globe, to educating patients and providers, and focusing on the care in patient care. You walk through the doors and immediately feel embraced and supported at every step in your journey. The Center draws from the rich resources of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center and is easily accessible given its urban setting. On a daily basis, Basser’s compassionate team of genetic counselors and physicians guide BRCA-affected patients and their families as they face the challenges of this mutation. It is one special place. As our tagline states, “We take cancer personally”.

How have you seen the conversation around BRCA change in recent years?

Angelina Jolie's powerful, honest and poignant revelation of her BRCA status and surgeries was a game-changer. When a beautiful, successful, strong woman whose livelihood depends upon her looks chooses to undergo prophylactic surgery, it empowers everyone and anyone facing these same risks to follow suit. Angelina Jolie almost single-handedly removed the stigma of having a BRCA mutation.

What are your hopes for the future?

In addition to the sometimes “silent but deadly” nature of this mutation and the fact that it can wreak havoc for generations to come, one of the challenges is that there is no known early detection test for ovarian cancer. Prophylactic surgery the only proven-to-be-effective prevention. This is not an easy decision for a young woman to make since it results in immediate menopause. So in addition to the obvious desire to develop a cure, until that time, it would be amazing to develop a tool for early detection of ovarian cancer.

So far, the Basser Center has awarded over $11 million in grants to investigators at Penn as well as others institutions. And this is just the beginning. We are truly committed to breaking down barriers, enhancing collaborations, and ultimately providing a world that gives better options to the generations of families who face the decisions that come with having a BRCA mutation. We know this is possible, and we are 100% committed to this goal.

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