Kelly Iverson was living across the globe when she got a phone call from her genetic counselor in Kansas City letting her know she tested positive for a gene mutation that would greatly increase her chances of getting a number of cancers, including breast cancer.
Iverson works as a travel writer, living in Thailand and Cambodia since graduating from Kansas State in 2015. The 25-year-old Lenexa native got tested at the urging of her father, who had previously tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation.
“His sister had breast cancer multiple times and his mother actually died of it in her 40s. It became kind of clear that this mutation might have been a reason for that, so my sister and I both got tested,” Iverson said.
While living in Bangkok, Iverson received the news her genetic test came back positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation. From there, she was advised to see a breast specialist who in turn, felt a lump in her breast. An MRI revealed three tumors.
“Luckily they were all benign, but it was just incredibly stressful. I think I went to six different hospitals in Bangkok total. I was having to call each one and ask if they even had the technology to do the MRI breast biopsy and half the time, no one knew what I was saying,” Iverson said.
Iverson asked nurses to let her know when the needle was inserted during biopsy, but the language barrier didn’t allow them to answer Iverson’s questions. Also dealing with a foreign healthcare system, Iverson was having to pay for appointments up front and later claim them with insurance.
“After speaking with my doctors, it wasn’t a question of if I got breast cancer, but when,” Iverson said.
Iverson elected to return home to the United States and have a preventative bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve ever made but it’s also the best one I’ve ever made as well,” Iverson said.
The goal of a mastectomy is to have zero breast tissue left. Iverson says the double mastectomy took her lifetime chances of developing breast cancer from 84 percent to less than one percent.
“I knew that the likelihood of me getting breast cancer was essentially inevitable, and now it’s not,” Iverson said.
When researching BRCA1 and double mastectomy surgeries, the results were “disheartening.”
“When I was trying to find out more information about BRCA1 and kind of what my future looked like, a lot of what I saw was all about Angelina Jolie. That was really it. I felt, as an average 25-year-old human, I can’t connect with someone like Angelina Jolie over this shared mutation,” Iverson said.
Jolie also elected for a double mastectomy in 2013 after learning of her increased likelihood of breast cancer having the BRCA1 gene mutation.
Iverson has documented her journey on social media and used her talents as a writer to share the realities of having a double mastectomy at age 25 in hopes of being more relatable. Additionally, she’s received help from the website, FORCE, which provides resources for those prone to or dealing with hereditary cancers.
A late September fat graft surgery took fat from Iverson’s stomach and inserted it into her chest. Initially, the rippled finish of her new breasts was hard to adjust to.
“I went from thinking I was the unluckiest human ever to being pretty grateful for the fake breasts I have,” Iverson said.
Iverson hopes her story reaches men and women in what she calls the “under-represented” BRCA1 and BRCA2 community, as well as encouraging people to get themselves checked for any genetic predispositions to cancer.
Iverson is waiting to hear if a final surgery is needed. She plans to return to Asia for work.