Page last updated at 06:43 GMT, Tuesday, 10 June 2008 07:43 UK

Operation hopes of cancer gene sisters

Marie Louise Connolly
By Marie-Louise Connolly
Good Morning Ulster

Mary Conlon
Mary Conlon, centre, was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago.

What would you do if you were told that by surgically removing your breasts you would have a much better chance of surviving cancer?

Well that's the dilemma faced by five sisters originally from County Armagh.

In the second of two reports, BBC Radio Ulster's Marie-Louise Connolly continues with her exclusive story on the Conlon siblings.

With a history of breast cancer in the family, four of them recently underwent genetic testing.

They each tested positive for the rare BRCA 1 gene which can trigger cancer in the breasts and ovaries. The women were told as carriers they had a 75% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of ovarian cancer.

One of their two brothers has also tested positive. Their older brother and younger sister have yet to find out if they too carry the gene.

Friday 2 May 2008 changed Mary Conlon's life. It's the day she removed the risk of ever being diagnosed with breast cancer again.

It was a heavy price to pay - she had to lose both her breasts. Mary Conlon, who is 45, was first diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago. She had a small lump removed.

Having since tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene, she decided to remove everything inside her body where the gene might attack.

As a result, Mary chose to have her breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes surgically removed.

The operation would give me another 30 maybe 40 years to watch them growing up
Mary Conlon

Sitting in her sun room in Wales which overlooks the Usk valley, Mary says she can finally breathe a huge sigh of relief.

"The operation had become too big a feature in my life. Now I can see progress every day. Three weeks ago I was bent over in two and couldn't walk - now I am sitting up straight."

Mary's first operation lasted almost 11 hours. They performed a double mastectomy and created new breasts using fat from her stomach.

"They made an incision under each breast and removed all of the breast tissue. Then in my stomach they made a melon-shaped wedge and removed fatty tissue plus some of the muscles and blood vessels," she said.

"Amazingly they created my new breasts by reconnecting the blood supply from old blood vessels. They had to shave a wee bit off one of my ribs to get at everything."

I suppose it balances out with the relief of not having the threat of getting breast cancer
Caroline Conlon

Unfortunately there were a few scares along the way when blood vessels began leaking into the transplant site on the left hand side. Mary had to undergo two further operations to correct the procedure.

After five days and still in a lot of pain, Mary says the moment she realized why she'd put her body through such a horrendous experience, was when her two young boys walked through the hospital ward door.

"The boys came to see me on day five for about 10 minutes. I remember telling myself I was doing it for them. The operation would give me another 30 maybe 40 years to watch them growing up," she said.

Caroline Conlon
Fitness fanatic Caroline also underwent surgery to prevent cancer.

Caroline, also in her 40s, lives in Strangford, County Down. In the past few months she has successfully undergone surgery to remove her breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes.

A fitness fanatic, she says she's looking forward to getting out on her mountain bike again. But for the time being, she is happy to watch the comings and goings of the ferry crossing Strangford Lough.

"I have managed to look down at the dressings, I can't see the wound because I had reconstruction so it doesn't look that remarkably different. I suppose it balances out with the relief of not having the threat of getting breast cancer," she said.

Mary, Caroline and Bronagh have the worst part of their journey over. Bernie is about to undergo surgery while Teresa is yet to be tested. Through each stage they've been able to comfort and advise each other.

Their story began with the realization that older members of their family's deaths resulted from having the BRCA 1 gene.

They now want to educate future generations that there are choices.

The sisters are planning a grand ball in Belfast later this year to raise money for research into cancer.

You can follow the Conlon family's story throughout the week on Good Morning Ulster, on BBC Radio Ulster, between 0630 and 0900 BST.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this piece and would like to speak to someone in confidence for details of further sources of information and support, you can call the BBC Action Line on 08000 566 787.

Surgery dilemma of cancer gene sisters
09 Jun 08 |  Northern Ireland
Gene testing: who benefits?
19 Apr 01 |  Health


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