A big decision for a local cancer advocate
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on May 10, 2017, to clarify information about the PALB2 gene that is discussed in this article.
Sometimes it takes a friend to give you that nudge to do something you know you ought to do.
Last May, musician Sarah Swain was talking to a friend who’s afraid to go to the dentist, and Swain admitted that she was frightened of getting a mammogram.
“We made a deal that she had to go to the dentist and I had to get a mammogram,” Swain said. “She made me call right then.”
Swain, 43 at the time, had never had a mammogram even though there’s a history of cancer in her family – and even though she’s founder and executive director of Cape Wellness Collaborative (CWC), a local nonprofit that gives free complementary, integrative therapies (including massage, acupuncture, Reiki and nutrition counseling) to people with cancer.
“I had this big production built up in my mind of what a mammogram was going to be,” said Swain, who is the lead singer of the rockabilly band Sarah Swain and the Oh Boys.
But when she went to the Fontaine Outpatient Center in Harwich for the exam, she gained a new understanding.
“It wasn’t painful. It was so simple, so quick, so convenient,” she said.
A candidate for testing
The mammogram came back clean, but, based on her family history, Swain was told that she was a candidate for genetic testing.
Her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer when she was 50 and died 18 months later in 2006. Around the same time, her uncle died from brain cancer and her grandmother passed away after a third bout with breast cancer.
“My mom was last person on earth you’d ever think would get sick,” Swain said. “She was always healthy, never drank, never smoked. You end up coming up with your own set of reasons – environmental reasons – why things might have happened. I never considered the genetic component.”
Swain was surprised to learn that she could have the genetic testing done on Cape Cod instead of going to Boston. She met with breast surgeon Kate Dalton, DO, a CWC board member who had become a friend.
“I met with Kate and went over my family history,” said Swain, who had blood drawn for the test at Cuda Women’s Health Center in Hyannis. “It was really low-key. Very simple.”
“Genetic testing has become more mainstream,” said Dr. Dalton. “It’s an important tool in cancer prevention. For Sarah, if we hadn’t done the testing, we wouldn’t have known the risks. Anyone with a family history should be tested.”
A Big Decision
Swain waited a few weeks for the test results. “It was in the back of my mind, but I really thought it was going to be negative,” she said.
Instead, it came back positive for PALB2, a newly discovered mutation that’s related to the BRCA2 gene.
“When I got her results, I cried because she’s my friend,” said Dr. Dalton. “But at the same time, I realized there was hope. Knowing the results, we could focus on prevention.”