"My boobs could kill me."
That's the first thing Samantha Littlefield thinks as she looks down at her breasts – and very soon, the 30-year-old plans to say goodbye to the "ticking timebombs" forever.
"It's a strange feeling," says the Auckland woman, who only found out she carries the BRCA2 gene mutation - which gives her an 80 per cent chance of developing cancer - in March, and gave birth to her son Isaac 10 weeks ago.
"These things that make me feel like a woman, that breastfed my baby, they could ultimately kill me. So yeah, they have to go!"
Samantha and her brother Jason discovered they inherited the gene mutation after their mother Gillian's second battle with breast cancer. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes we
all have, producing tumour-suppressant proteins. However, the mutation means damaged genes aren't repaired and it can lead to cancer.
Samantha remembers her mum's first breast cancer diagnosis in 2004, when she was only 13.
"It was so difficult on the whole family," she recalls. "My dad had to work a lot of overtime to support us and Mum was going through hell with her treatments. I was doing a lot to help look after Jason, who was just 6. I had to grow up pretty quickly."
In May 2019, the family celebrated Gillian being cancer-free for 14 years, but last year, the cancer returned, with a new tumour found in her other breast. As part of her treatment, Gillian, 55, was referred to genetic testing, which revealed she had the BRCA2 mutation, and it was recommended Samantha and Jason get checked too.
"It was a 50:50 chance we had it, so of course we really wanted to be tested," Samantha tells Woman's Day. "Waiting for the test results was so stressful. I'm a planner, so I just like to have a plan in place, regardless of a positive or negative result."
Being 17 weeks pregnant with Isaac, it was an anxious time – and when the test came back positive, pragmatism took over.
"We had just found out we were pregnant, so we thought we'd have our first baby and buy a house, then grow our family," she says. "But the positive result has meant we'll be having our kids earlier because in the next four years, I need to have the surgery.
"Having the test was actually positive – it pushed us to make those decisions. My clock is literally ticking now. We have to get this done!"
Samantha says it was a simple decision to have a preventative double mastectomy as the risk of developing cancer goes up to around 80 per cent for carriers of the BRCA gene mutation, compared to an 8 per cent chance otherwise.
"The first time my mum had cancer, it had already spread – it was grade three. She had
a lumpectomy as well as chemotherapy and radiation, plus five years of hormone therapy. She was so sick, she couldn't get out of her recliner chair for months. She also got
an infection from the radiation that almost killed her.
"I don't want to go through that, but I also don't want my kids to go through any of that.
"It had a huge impact on our family and I'm determined it's not going to happen again."
Surprisingly, Samantha is looking on the bright side of losing both breasts.
"I'm planning on having three kids, so after breastfeeding all of them, I'll probably need something done anyway!" she laughs. "I like having humour – that's how I deal with it and try to have a positive outlook."
That doesn't mean she's not nervous about what she'll have to go through, but Samantha is adamant that this is the right decision for her and her whānau, adding she'll do what it takes to deal with everything that comes her way.
"For me, knowledge is power. I will never have to tell my kids I have breast cancer and it's spread. It's about taking the power back and knowing that cancer won't have any hold over me. By making this decision, I'm saying, 'Screw cancer!' and that feels fabulous."
Join the pink movement
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and there are loads of different ways to get involved. Grab a bucket and get dressed in pink to join thousands of volunteers collecting for the Pink Ribbon Street Appeal on October 29 and 30. Have your workplace go "Pink For A Day" to start conversations about breast health and wellbeing. And look out for Pink Products where a portion of sales go towards the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ's life-saving work. Visit breastcancerfoundation.org.nz for more info.