As part of Genetic Counsellors Awareness Day 2019 we're sharing the story of two sisters who both had a double mastectomy at Peter Mac on the same day with the same surgeons after finding out they had a BRCA1 genetic mutation.

Julie, 31, and her sister Michelle, 34, sat across the desk from a genetic counsellor at Peter Mac and heard the news they’d both feared – cancer was in their genes. 

“We now knew we had more than a 70 per cent chance of developing breast cancer in our lifetime,” Julie Gaspero says.

Both sisters had inherited a BRCA1 gene mutation.

They were now both face-to-face with the genetic mutation that caused the breast cancer that took the lives of their grandmother and aunty and caused the cancer that so many in their family had suffered through.   

From right: Julie and Michelle pictured with their brother and sister.
From right: Julie and Michelle pictured with their brother and sister.

Rewind four years and their dad got the news he had aggressive prostate cancer and needed surgery and treatment. 

Julie then started asking questions about their family history and started putting two-and-two together for the first time.  

What she uncovered would give her “sleepless nights”.

“Before then, in my 20s, I hadn’t really thought seriously about the cancer in our family,” Julie says.

“I spoke to dad’s surviving sister in Sydney and she told me about the gene mutation that had caused her breast cancer, my dad’s prostate cancer and had taken the life of their mum and sister.”

Julie then went straight to her GP and got a referral to Peter Mac’s Familial Cancer Centre where many of her family had already been tested. 

“The genetic counsellor talked us through our family history, the testing and what would happen after, so we were really prepared,” Julie says.

The genetic counsellor told them they both had the same result – a BRCA1 mutation. 

BRCA1 is a human gene that produces tumour suppressor proteins which help  repair damaged DNA.

When a mutation in the gene occurs, cells are more likely to develop additional genetic alterations that can lead to cancer.

The sisters then saw a doctor at Peter Mac who talked them through their options which ranged from medication and screening to surgery.

They decided on screening.

“We were having yearly screening MRIs and Michelle was having mammograms,” Julie recalls. 

“The first few were quite daunting and then I got used to having them.” 

Julie then enrolled to be part of a study and after some time a change was detected in her breast tissue

She was filled her with fear and anxiety from that moment on.

“I woke up every morning after that thinking, ‘is today the day I’m going to get cancer?’,” Julie recalls. 

“Michelle saw what I was going through and from then on we pretty much decided to put ourselves on the waiting list at Peter Mac for a double mastectomy and reconstruction.”

The sisters then embarked on the journey to change their future and had surgery on the same day with the same surgeons at Peter Mac. 

“Peter Mac bent over backwards to get us into surgery on the same day,” Julie says.

“Michelle and I are very close. We started the journey together and we wanted end it together. 

“We threw the idea out to our surgeons and they really pushed for it and Peter Mac bent-over backwards to get us into surgery on the same day.”

By the end of their surgery day, both sisters lay in hospital beds opposite each other in the same room – both with new breasts and a greatly reduced chance they would follow in the footsteps of other members of their family. 

Julie took this picture of Michelle from her bed at Peter Mac following their surgery.

“It was such a huge relief knowing that we’d gone from like a 95 per cent chance of getting cancer to less than five per cent,” Julie says.

Their younger sister was also recently tested for the BRCA1 gene mutation but thankfully returned a negative result. 

The sisters’ advice to other women is to know your family history and check your boobs on the first of every month. 

They are both now advocates for preventative health hub Pink Hope.