Cancer risk prompts difficult decisions

Testing positive for a high-risk cancer gene forced some tough decisions on Nicola Coom, but also ignited a passion for improving the lives of those impacted by cancer.

Nicola was in her early 30s when her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Two other close female relatives had already died of the disease. Nicola got tested for the BRCA (BReast CAncer) genetic mutation, which is passed down through families and associated with a greatly increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

Nicola says having the mutant gene threw her many difficult decisions, such as whether to have her health closely monitored or undergo preventative measures such having her breasts or ovaries removed.

At the time, Nicola’s mother was having treatment for late-stage ovarian cancer.

“I made the decision pretty quickly to have a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction using tissue from my abdomen. Mum was right there in front of me going through chemo so if I could take steps to avoid that, why not?” she says.

Very soon after getting the news she had a BRCA mutation, Nicola began researching the subject and travelled overseas to hear from international experts. She discovered a lack of easily digestible information in New Zealand for those impacted by a genetic pre-disposition to cancer, so started a peer-support group and foundation called Gift of Knowledge.

Just months before her scheduled mastectomy, Nicola met her now husband. The possibility she might in future choose to have her ovaries removed fast-tracked the fledgling couple’s family plans. The pair now have three sons, born within a year of each other. In 2015, following the birth of her third son, Nicola had her ovaries removed.

“Your body is forced into menopause before it is ready and it is not pleasant, but for me the positives outweighed the negatives. I wanted to
be around for my family,” says Nicola.

Since then, she has fostered the growth of Gift of Knowledge Foundation and worked as the Executive Director of a national mental health trust.

In July, she took on her ‘dream job’ as Chief Executive of the Cancer Society Canterbury – West Coast.

“When I got the job it was a ‘pinch me’ moment. It was an opportunity to use all my professional skills and my passion for working towards better outcomes for cancer patients,” she says.

Within weeks of starting the Cancer Society role, Nicola’s father was diagnosed with prostate cancer and she was diagnosed with a basal cell
carcinoma on her face which she has just had removed.

“It is not ideal, but I know that we are just one of many families receiving this kind of news. It is also a good reminder that people can live well with cancer. That is why I am so passionate about the work the Cancer Society does in supporting people impacted by cancer,” Nicola says.

The BRCA gene

  • All cancer is caused by changes in our genes, but many occur by chance or with age. Some people, however, develop cancer or are at a high risk of developing it because of a genetic susceptibility they have inherited.
  • The BRCA gene is an inherited mutation that significantly increases the chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer
  • 1 out of every 400-800 people carry a BRCA gene mutation
  • If you have a strong history of breast or ovarian cancer, it may be appropriate for your general practitioner to refer you to the Genetic Service.
  • A strong family history may include two or more close blood relatives on the same side of the family with breast or ovarian cancer.
  • If you are referred to genetic services, they will discuss and calculate the risk of developing cancer and may arrange testing for you and your family.
Read the full August newsletter here