Thousands of miles walked, thousands of dollars raised, thousands of dollars donated – all in the name of fighting breast cancer.
Dr. Ellen Frankel, a well-known dermatologist in Cranston, now finds herself in the same situation as thousands of others. She learned two weeks ago that she was BRCA2 positive. Already a two-time cancer survivor – melanoma in 1984, and thyroid cancer in 2009-10 – Frankel is being proactive with her recent diagnosis.
According to cancer.gov, “the BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins. These proteins help repair damaged DNA and, therefore, play a role in ensuring the stability of the cell’s genetic material. When either of these genes is mutated, or altered, such that its protein product is not made or does not function correctly, DNA damage may not be repaired properly. As a result, cells are more likely to develop additional genetic alterations that can lead to cancer.”
Frankel is having surgery this week to have both her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed in order to prevent ovarian cancer, which can accompany a BRCA2 positive test result.
“What led me to being tested is that my younger sister, Ruthamy, did not act fast enough on her uterine cancer and is currently not in good health,” she said.
Frankel completed genetic counseling, which led to her BRCA testing and positive result. She is the oldest of five children and has two adult children who will both be tested as well.
Specific inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase the risk of female breast and ovarian cancers, and they have been associated with increased risks of several additional types of cancer.
Frankel will make her decision about a bilateral mastectomy in future months as she continues to contemplate that surgery. She does want to reassure her family, staff, friends and patients that she does not have cancer and that she is healthy.
While she is being proactive, she acknowledges that “this is not where I wanted to be at age 61.” She described the many work- and personal-related trips that were coming up on her schedule and vowed this setback would not get in her way. As she has championed so many others with cancer, she is now once again the champion of her own health.
Yet, why go public?
“I want to educate people, as I do in my practice,” she said. “The more people who understand genetic counseling and the risks involved in a positive BRCA test, the better they can be proactive as well.”
Frankel decided to go public through the Cranston Herald due to past coverage of events in which she has been involved. Those include the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation, where Frankel has been active for eight years and last year sponsored the inaugural 10K race during Flames of Hope. She has also hosted the Gloria Gemma Hope Bus several times at her office on Reservoir Avenue in Cranston.
On May 17-18, she will participate in the Avon Breast Cancer Walk for the second year in Boston. Anyone who wishes to donate toward her walk may visit www.avonwalk.org and find her name. The Avon Walk is a two-day event where walkers complete 39 miles and see Boston in a very unique way while raising funds.
While she has shared many of her efforts in the pages of the Cranston Herald, this one is more personal.
“I took an oath to help people when I became a doctor,” she said. “I found it pertinent to get my story out and to educate women and men who may be at risk such as I am.”
A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2. According to Cancer.gov, “Harmful mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase the risk of several cancers in addition to breast and ovarian cancer. BRCA1 mutations may increase a woman’s risk of developing fallopian tube cancer and peritoneal cancer. Men with BRCA2 mutations, and to a lesser extent BRCA1 mutations, are also at increased risk of breast cancer. Men with harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations have a higher risk of prostate cancer. Men and women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations may be at increased risk of pancreatic cancer.”
Cancer does not discriminate. People of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, such as Frankel, have a higher prevalence of harmful BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations than people in the general population. It is not exclusive to Ashkenazi Jewish descent, however, and many other populations are also at risk.
“By having this surgery done, I will avoid future problems. You must educate yourself and do not put your head in the sand, and remember, this affects both women and men,” she said.
“Basically,” said Frankel with a tear in her eye, “I got the genetic short straw in this one.”