SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Actress Angelina Jolie has been public about her private decisions to keep herself cancer-free. Recently, she disclosed that she had preventive surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.
Like Jolie, experts say 2.3 million people in the U.S. may have an increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, but 90 percent are unaware.
I met with one local woman who's working to educate people about hereditary cancers, as she navigates through her own storm.
At the age of 33, Heather Clark has tackled and survived one massive wave in her life - breast cancer and now she is gearing up to ride yet another monster storm swell. This time, in the form of surgery to remove her fallopian tubes, and possibly her ovaries as well.
“Yeah, I have two years before I'm supposed to get this crazy surgery, and that's a little scary,” said Clark.
Clark has an inherited BRCA 1 gene mutation and says doctors suggest women in her position have surgery to remove their ovaries and tubes by the age of 35, to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. It's the same surgery actress Angelina Jolie had, which she announced in a powerful New York Times op-ed article last week.
“I'm thrilled she has been so public with her struggle,” continued Clark. “She's brought the conversation to the table, and people are aware these mutations exist and the risks exist.
Jolie and Clark, whose mom died when she was only eight, share a similar family history.
“It is really similar, I also had my mother and my aunt pass away from ovarian and breast cancer when I was a young age,” added Clark.
But what is vastly different, is this: while Jolie chose to undergo a preventive double mastectomy two years ago, Clark was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 29. She then had a double mastectomy and 50 lymph nodes removed.
“It's an ongoing struggle, but I'm still blessed to be here,” said Clark.
For Clark, there are additional risks to having her ovaries removed – she is now forced into permanent menopause.
“Unfortunately, since I've already had breast cancer, I'm not the best candidate for hormone replacement therapy,”
But new research on the horizon is promising.
“Some of the research has been showing, as Angelina Jolie mentioned in her article, there's a potential that BRCA related ovarian cancers are actually coming from our fallopian tubes,” explained Clark.
In which case, Clark could keep her ovaries.
In the meantime, this grad school student is riding the waves that come her way, living life to the fullest and helping to educate others about hereditary cancers.
“So many people are at risk, and 90 percent of them being unaware is just unacceptable,” she said.
Clark recommends meeting with a genetic counselor if you are concerned about your family history. She also volunteers as an outreach coordinator at FORCE - Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered.