(WUSA9)-- This October, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Buddy Check 9 (BC9), and our commitment to helping women beat breast cancer. As part of this celebration, WUSA 9 is partnering with FORCE, which stands for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered. FORCE advocates for women who have inherited an unusually high risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Caroline Pruce is a FORCE member. She and her husband Alan live in the Ballston area of Arlington, Va., and have been married one year. This summer, they traveled on romantic trip across Europe, a final getaway before Caroline was scheduled to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in July.
Caroline explains her decision to have what some might consider a radical surgical procedure. She says, "My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012, and she found out she had triple negative breast cancer."
Caroline and her mother also now know they both carry the BRCA breast cancer gene mutation. As women of Ashkenazi Jewish decent, they are at higher risk for this mutation, which can raise the risk of developing breast cancer to 85%.
Caroline remembers the day she got her genetic testing results. "I was definitely hoping I wasn't. I think anyone would be, and it was hard," she says.
Caroline originally planned to be screened with extra vigilance for breast cancer until she and Alan could have a family and she could breastfeed her children. But her very first breast MRI revealed two suspicious areas that warranted biopsies. Even though the biopsy results came back benign, fast-growing cells were spotted. Caroline decided to radically change course and have the surgery.
"I thought: I don't want to keep, like, getting monitored, then going through a week of waiting after you have a biopsy, that week's horrible, waiting for the results," she says.
Dr. Shawna Willey is a surgical oncologist and director of the Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center. Dr. Willey performed Caroline's prophylactic mastectomy at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital.
Dr. Willey explains, "We leave as much skin as we can, we can leave nipples. I take out the breast tissue, trying to preserve the health of the skin left behind."
After Dr. Willey's part of the surgery was complete, the operating room was turned over to Dr. Scott Spear, chairman of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital. He performed an immediate reconstruction with tissue expanders during the same operation. Those expanders will be gradually increased in size, and replaced by implants once Caroline's body heals.
Dr. Spear says, "Probably 80% of reconstructions today are done immediately at the time of mastectomy. It's very convenient for the patient... gets things off to a quicker start."
WUSA9 caught up with Caroline about five weeks after that life-changing surgery, when she had put the early, most difficult days of post-op recovery behind her. Caroline is back at work near Farragut Square in downtown Washington, DC, and says the hardest part of healing was emotional, not physical.
She explains, "It's like you're grieving. You're losing a part of you and getting a new part, but it is hard. Time moves much slower when you are recovering."
Caroline looks forward to the day her reconstruction is finally complete. And she firmly believes having had this surgery now gives her the best chance of a long and less worry-filled life.
"I know for my family and my future, this is the best decision for us. Something we will never have to think about. And my husband and I can be in our lives together without this hovering over us, without having to look back," she says.
WUSA9 is partnering with FORCE for the October 1st red carpet DC premiere of "Decoding Annie Parker," a film about the scientist who first proved breast cancer can be hereditary. The movie airs from 7 p.m. - 10 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD. Part of the $50 ticket price is tax-deductible and benefits FORCE; advanced tickets can be purchased HERE.