March 8, 2019

Family History

Rita James with her two daughters

Rita James (center) with her daughters, Jennifer (right) and Karen (left)

When Rita James was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, it stirred painful memories.

Her mother died of breast cancer in 1969 at age 47. That’s just two years older than Rita was at the time of her diagnosis.

Those memories reawakened when one of her two daughters was diagnosed in 2009. As the James family soon realized, family history can be one of the best indicators of breast cancer occurrence.

Waging War

James’ cancer battle began Jan. 16, 1991, the same day fighting began in the Gulf War against Iraq.

“I remember waking up that day wondering if we were at war, but I was already at war against my cancer,” she said of the day she was diagnosed.

A mastectomy followed. Still, since her mother’s cancer returned after treatment, she wanted to consider all options — leading her to the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute and Laura Hutchins, M.D., director of the UAMS Division of Hematology/Oncology.

“I knew when I came here she’d be aggressive in her treatment, and that’s what I wanted.”

She began a six-month chemotherapy treatment. Hutchins sat with her through the first dose.

Through the treatments, James kept working as a math curriculum specialist with the Little Rock School District. She did not let the disease slow her.

Daughter Karen said her mother remained positive through the ordeal. ‘Mom taught us to appreciate every day and not to sweat the small stuff,” she said.

Winning the Battle

In 1996, she had her five-year checkup. It was a milestone, particularly since her mother did not survive five years after her diagnosis.

But it wasn’t long after that when Rita felt another lump. The cancer had returned, meaning a round of radiation therapy.

Cancer left the James family alone for 13 years. Then in May 2009, an abnormality showed up in a mammogram of Rita’s daughter, Jennifer, 40.

Knowing the family history, both Jennifer and Karen began having regular mammograms and checkups early. Jennifer was not surprised to find the abnormal area was malignant.

“I was scared just knowing what mom had been through,” said Jennifer, who had a mastectomy in July. “But I don’t think of breast cancer as a death sentence anymore. I found mine before I could even feel anything.”

Her prognosis is good.

Forging On

Because of their strong family history, Rita and her daughters decided to be tested for genetic defects that can indicate an increased risk for breast cancer. About a third of patients with a family history of cancer will have such a genetic mutation.

Rita’s test showed a defect in one gene segment. Her daughters had a 50-50 chance of inheriting the defect that could mean an increased risk of cancer.

But it was Karen, not Jennifer, who had the genetic anomaly.

“I think the testing is important, but to me the results showed that family history can be just as important as genetics,” Jennifer said.

Karen took the results in stride, continuing regular checkups and self-exams. “It’s just something to stay on top of,” she said.

The women are adamant about the importance of mammograms, regular checkups and self-exams.

“I’m amazed at people who have a lump and don’t do anything,” Rita said.

“Or who won’t get a mammogram because they say it hurts too much,” added Jennifer.