One of Justine Avery Sands’ first memories was of driving to the hospital with her mother.
“She was a very open woman. She didn’t believe in lying,” said Sands, a 34-year-old Seattle sales executive. So when Sands asked, her mom told the 4-year-old exactly where they were going: to see a doctor about a lump her mother had found in her breast.
“I told her, ‘Maybe it is that Froot Loop I gave you earlier,’” Sands remembered. “She laughed and said, ‘I hope so!’”
That day was the beginning of Sands’ journey with cancer. Five years later, her mother died of breast cancer at the age of 43, when Sands was 9 years old. A few years after that, Sands’ aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went into remission but later died of ovarian cancer. Then a cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer at 34.
Two years ago, Sands decided to have her own breasts removed in a surgery known as prophylactic, or preventive, double mastectomy – a choice prompted by the reasons behind her family’s history of breast cancer. Her cousin’s doctor recommended genetic testing, and many of her other relatives decided to get tested too. It turned out that the family harbors a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that dramatically raises the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Sands, fresh out of college, delayed her genetic testing for several more years.