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Living with BRCA2 mutation, woman is breast and pancreatic cancer survivor

"I don’t live in fear of it, but I try to be vigilant," she says.
Both of Michele Miller's cancers were detected early thanks to her and her doctors' vigilance. 
Both of Michele Miller's cancers were detected early thanks to her and her doctors' vigilance. Courtesy Michele Miller
/ Source: TODAY

A BRCA2 gene mutation is most often associated with breast cancer, but it can also raise the risk of other types of cancer. Two years after Michele Miller, 53, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had to confront more frightening news: a tumor in her pancreas. Miller, who lives in Windham, Maine, shared her story with TODAY.

I started getting mammograms at the age of 30. I didn’t know a lot about my family history because I was adopted at birth, but I did have one little nugget of information — I knew my birth mom had breast cancer at a young age. Based on that, my doctor started me early with mammograms.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, the radiologist was able to catch it early. It was stage 1A.

I had genetic testing at that time and found out I had the BRCA2 mutation. The treatment for the breast cancer could have been a lumpectomy with radiation, but because the BRCA2 mutation would give me a high risk of recurrence, I chose a bilateral mastectomy.

I also had my tubes and ovaries removed. My doctor talked about the elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and melanoma, but the one that haunted me in the conversation was this elevated risk of pancreatic cancer. The genetic counselor said there really isn’t a good way to screen for pancreatic cancer and it stuck with me because I just I didn’t like that answer. It worried me. I didn’t feel like it was over. I felt like little time bombs were probably in my body somewhere.

In April 2021, I started having stomach symptoms. I would eat a meal and feel so full — like Thanksgiving Day-full after eating half of what I would normally eat. That progressed to this steady constant pain in my middle upper abdomen, right at my stomach.

Because I was already under the care of an oncologist for my breast cancer, I called them first and they moved pretty quickly to get me in for a CT scan. The diagnosis: Stage 1B pancreatic cancer, which basically means the tumor was contained within my pancreas and hadn’t spread to other organs.

Pancreatic cancer has symptoms that can be easily dismissed as other things. People think it’s stress or indigestion. You have to really listen to your body. I didn’t let those stomach symptoms go on for too long. I knew something wasn’t right. I think a lot of primary care doctors maybe wouldn’t have moved so quickly to that CT scan. You can lose time if you are trying to treat it as a dietary issue or something like that.

Still, it was devastating. When you hear you have it, you automatically think of the survival rate — 11% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will make it five years.

It was very difficult to think about: What’s going to happen to me? How much time do I have? I would wake up every morning and my nightmare would start, rather than you go to sleep and have a nightmare. That’s how it felt.

I always had this underlying feeling, though, of “I’m just going to fight this.” Early on in the diagnostic phase, my surgeon said I was a candidate for the Whipple procedure, which was wonderful. If pancreatic cancer can be cured, really the only path is to be able to have that surgery.

Miller had to undergo chemotherapy before and after the complicated surgery to remove the tumor in her pancreas.
Miller had to undergo chemotherapy before and after the complicated surgery to remove the tumor in her pancreas.Courtesy Michele Miller

I did eight rounds of chemo first, starting in May and finishing in August. The surgery was on Oct. 4. A lot of people think when you have surgery to remove a tumor, you just go in and pluck it out. But the pancreas is so intertwined with your stomach and parts of your intestine and your gallbladder and all the ducts that are in there, a lot has to be taken out to remove the tumor that’s in the pancreas.

Then everything has to be re-plumbed and the digestive system rewired — that’s why that surgery is so complicated.

I had a really good outcome. I was only in the hospital for four days afterwards. I healed well. I would say my surgery was easier than going through chemo.

Part of my stomach and part of my upper intestine were removed, so I had to start with very bland foods, but I’ve been able to add different foods as time has gone by. I have to eat small amounts a little bit more frequently and avoid foods that have high fat and high sugar content.

I completed four more rounds of chemo after surgery, finishing in December. A CT scan shortly after that showed no evidence of disease, so it was really a great way to start Christmas and the new year. I plan to return to my job at an insurance company in February.

Miller and her husband shared a happy moment when she marked the last round of chemo in December.
Miller and her husband shared a happy moment when she marked the last round of chemo in December.Courtesy Michele Miller

I’ll probably get scans for the rest of my life in some way, shape or form. My focus right now is to build back my stamina. I’ve lost about 35 pounds from the chemo and the surgery. My preferred way of taking care of my body is barre class because it focuses on strength and flexibility and balance, and I’ll get back to that pretty soon.

I have three daughters. One of them has undergone genetic testing and she’s positive for the BRCA2 mutation as well. Another daughter is going through the process right now. Knowledge is power and for anyone who has a family history of the cancers that are aligned to the BRCAs, it’s smart to think about genetic testing.

It’s very scary and intimidating to find out that you have a mutation, but getting that information as soon as you can helps with making the right plan with your health care providers.

You can start to take back a little bit of control instead of feeling like “I’m a victim of this BRCA2.” I don’t live in fear of it, but I try to be vigilant. 

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.