A family fights off cancer long before they are even diagnosed

Published: May. 7, 2014 at 9:33 PM EDT|Updated: May. 17, 2014 at 9:32 PM EDT
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CHESTERFIELD, VA (WWBT) - Cancer. It is a word that sends people into action and in most cases early detection is the key.

For one class of patients, beating cancer starts before they even contract the disease.  But it means a radical life-changing surgery

For Janice Hedwall, being diagnosed with cancer changed her life, but not in the way you might think.

"That is my real story," said Janice. "That I've had a better 14 years than I would've had, had I not been sick."

Shortly after Janice's diagnosis she learned that she carried the BRCA1 gene -- a marker that can predict the potential to contract the disease later in life.

"The risk of breast cancer is going to be very high, as high as 80% in her lifetime," said Dr. Randal J. West of Johnston Willis Hospital. "The risk of developing ovarian cancer can be as high as 40%."

Doctor West explained to her that her family needed to learn about the gene and find out if they might have it. For Janice that was of particular importance for her daughters Dina Reinhardt and Tracie Abrams.

"I went in thinking I didn't have it," said Dina.

Dina and Tracie both had the gene and were faced with a tough decision. Undergo a radical surgery that could remove both of their breasts and their ovaries, or take the gamble that they would beat the overwhelming statistical odds.

"It definitely takes time, some longer than others," said Tracie. "It is a very personal choice how you are going to move forward with it."

Tracie decided to have a bilateral mastectomy. Dina underwent a mastectomy, an oophorectomy and full hysterectomy. It was a decision their mother watched from afar and tried not to influence… too much.

"I don't counsel my daughters," Janice says with a laugh.

She knew her daughters would make the right choice for them. The process was a bit easier, because they both already had children and supportive husbands. But they still had to decide how to protect their future. Their goal was to make cancer just a word, not a state of mind.

"I never lived in the shadow of cancer," said Janice. "When it was over for me it was over."

Except for one key fact, the "small stuff" doesn't matter to this family. They live every second to the fullest, as they did in a recent trip to Italy.

They are a family, with one survivor and two "pre-vivors".

"Everything that is little in life that does not really matter falls away," said Janice.

And what matters for this family now is paying their good fortune forward. Dina and Tracie both lead a local support group that helps others who discover they have the BRCA gene.

You can learn more about the group on their web site:

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