Following the example of celebrities like Angela Jolie and Michelle Heaton, flame-haired Belfast entrepreneur Linzi Rooney opted to have life-changing surgery to decrease her risk of breast cancer.
The 31-year-old beauty, owner of Studio Souk on Belfast’s Ann Street which sells the work of 80 artists and craftmakers, is sharing her story to raise awareness during October, which is breast cancer awareness month.
The busy business woman and mum to daughters Macie (5) and Adaline (1) underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive breast surgery during April and September of last year having tested positive for the BRAC1 gene that is known to increase the risk of breast cancer by 40 to 85 per cent.
It was after testing positive for the gene that Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie elected to have a double mastectomy causing many women to follow suit.
Linzi was already determined to have the treatment following the death of her mother Mandy at age 40 when Linzi was just 15 - the loss of her mother to cancer at such a formative age made the mum-of-two determined to leave nothing to chance in reducing her risks of also developing the disease.
Linzi’s mother, whom she describes as “sociable, friendly, feisty, affectionate and a bit like Princess Diana” in her warm ability to relate to others, was first diagnosed with breast cancer aged 33 and proceeded to develop liver cancer and a brain tumour as the cancer spread before her untimely death at the age of 40.
Linzi remembers doing her homework in hospital beside her mother and she and her father Alan and brother David rallied to the end in making their last months with Mandy as memorable and peaceful as possible.
“Mum was really friendly and a fantastic mother. She very much took life as it came. To me she was really like Princess Diana in being very warm and she had the same hairstyle. Even when she was going through chemotherapy she had a wig that was like a Princess Diana style. She had this very relaxed and positive outlook on life and that continued all the way through her battle with cancer.
“I always remember doing my homework in hospital beside her and our whole lives as a family revolved around mum and her being sick and her treatment. But she always tried so hard for my brother David and I to keep things positive. Losing mum so young was devastating and it made me fearful that I would go through the same thing.”
Linzi was naturally shattered by the loss and since becoming a mother herself was determined to be proactive and have elective surgery on the NHS because she could not face the prospect of her children having to deal with what she went through; Linzi remembers her mother’s last years being dominated by her cancer struggle and felt she had to act fast in order to significantly reduce her own cancer risk.
Some celebrities who have opted for an elective double mastectomy because of testing positive for the BRAC1 gene have been criticised for pre-empting the development of a disease that may not actually develop. But for Linzi the decision was always exactly what she wanted in order to delimit her chances of developing the cancer that ended her mother’s life.
“When I became a mother I realised that this was not just about me but also about my children. My mum is gone and my children depend on me and I did not want them to suffer as I did seeing my own mum go through what she did. I felt I had to act to prevent that happening to my two girls - that was the most important thing. My doctor advised me that I was high risk and because of my mother once I turned 30 it became something I really couldn’t ignore because of what had happened to mum. I didn’t want to take any chances because your health is your wealth.
“I felt I couldn’t properly rest or relax worrying about the possibility of getting breast cancer. People say it was a brave choice for me to have a double mastectomy but to me it isn’t brave it’s just about trying to take control of your own life and health. For me there was a huge amount of psychological stress and worrying about getting cancer so acting and doing something about it just seemed logical. To me if there’s anything you can do to prevent something bad happening then you should do it. We put seat belts on, we take vitamins, we eat healthy and try to exercise all to prevent the development of disease and a double mastectomy is a preventative measure just like that for me.”
Though many might feel that a double mastectomy and reconstruction is drastic without confirmation of a cancer diagnosis for Linzi this was about eliminating the worry she had about developing the illness that robbed her of her mother when she was just 15.
“People wondered if I was nervous about the surgeries but if anything I felt really positive to be receiving treatment I knew would reduce my cancer risk. I had wanted the treatment for years because of what happened to mum. Probably if I had been able to get the procedure when I was 21 I would have gone for it. The thought of developing cancer has always been a massive worry for me.
“I felt relaxed having had a double mastectomy and I feel like I’ve been given a new lease of life.
“Before I was always rushing, rushing thinking I had to get things done by 40 when mum died but the surgery has allowed me to leave that anxiety behind. I feel like I have more balance now, that I can enjoy life and realise what’s important. It’s literally lifted a massive weight off my shoulders.”
Linzi underwent her double mastectomy in April of last year and had reconstructive breast surgery completed in September past. Though many women worry about feeling less feminine after a mastectomy Linzi finds that her confidence has improved.
“I’m delighted by the results of the reconstructive surgery - I love them now. They don’t feel like my normal breasts but they look amazing.”
Linzi was treated on the NHS. Double mastectomies are available for women testing positive for the BRAC1 gene but you have to ask for the test to be done and be proactive in asking for the procedure.
“I feel like Angelina Jolie I was not prepared to leave anything to chance now that I am a mother. To me it just seems very straightforward that you would ask for the test and have surgery if you know that a first degree relative like your mother has suffered with cancer.
“My advice to women who know that they are high risk for developing breast cancer is not to over think it and to be proactive in doing what’s best for the long term rather than the short term. Yes the surgery is a difficult and painful procedure with recovery of six weeks for the double mastectomy but I think it’s worth it for peace of mind.
“When I woke up after my last surgery I actually felt great. To me it’s an amazing feeling knowing you’ve taken this important step to massively reduce the cancer risk.
“If you are able to get a surgery that will help prevent against breast cancer and you are high risk then to me you should just do it. I think every woman should do it if she finds it will allay her fears.
“I also know that my mum was definitely right there behind me in all of this.”
If you have any concerns about breast cancer and the BRAC1 gene contact your GP. There are several breast cancer charities in Northern Ireland who can further advise you about breast cancer and treatment.