Dena Mynar refused to be a victim of breast cancer
Childhood summers are all about fun, friends, and family, a time when the biggest decisions are whose house to play at or where to go swimming. Summer should be a time of youthful innocence, full of adventure and free from fear. But sometimes it’s not.
For Dena Mynar, summers growing up in Houston brought an occasional reminder of the deadly shadow that fell on her family tree. When family came to visit, they didn’t always come for fun. At times, they brought an air of determination tinged with sadness. The women in Dena’s family were fighting an invisible foe that stole health and peace, replacing them with sickness and possible death. They came to Houston to battle their cancer.
That was a battle Dena was determined never to have.
It’s in Their Genes
Many people look into genealogy to discover interesting facts that connect them with their ancestors. There may be a similar nose that makes its way through the generations or a proclivity for drawing or an attraction to a particular profession. Dena’s maternal side has a proclivity for cancer.
Dena’s great-grandmother Stella and her two sisters died of breast cancer. Grandmother Vivian died of ovarian cancer. Dena’s aunt, Susie, was only twenty-eight years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As was tradition, Susie came to stay with Dena’s family.
“As far back as I can remember, family would stay at our home while taking treatments at MD Anderson [Cancer Center],” Dena explains. “I spent many summer days watching my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my aunt go through chemotherapy and radiation.”
Dena witnessed the vibrant women in her life wither as the harsh effects of treatment ravaged their bodies and fought the cancer. The ever-present hair loss, weight loss, extreme fatigue, and nausea reinforced a brutal truth: One day it would be Dena’s turn. “When you grow up in a family that has a lot of cancer victims, it’s not a matter of if I would have cancer, but of when and where,” Dena says.
Aunt Susie survived breast cancer, but beating it did irreparable damage to her heart—one of the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. After being a 35-year cancer survivor and raising a daughter on her own, Dena’s aunt died of congestive heart failure.
But through Aunt Susie’s death and subsequent blood tests, Dena and her family learned to call their genetic shadow by name—they were BRCA2 positive.
BRCA2, BCRC to the Rescue
BRCA2 is a gene that produces a tumor-suppressing protein. This protein helps maintain cellular DNA structure by repairing damaged sections of DNA. But when there’s a mutation or alteration in the gene (BRCA2 positive), the protein it produces isn’t able to repair the damage properly. Alterations in DNA can lead to cancer over time.
According to the National Cancer Institute, 12 percent of women in the general population will get breast cancer some time in their lives. For BRCA2 positive women, the odds jump to 45 percent. Only 1.3 percent of women will get ovarian cancer, but BRCA2 positive women have an 11–17 percent chance.
Dena finally had a reason for her family’s cancer history. With the prevalence of cancer in her family, Dena’s odds were even higher than those of other BRCA2 positive women. All the years spent watching the women she loved struggle through cancer and the effects of treatments crystalized Dena’s resolve.
She could prevent cancer. Dena, like her mother, Beth Lee, had a hysterectomy in her thirties. But for 20-plus years, Dena took hormone-replacement therapy, which increased her odds of breast cancer. So the choice was clear.
“The decision to have a double mastectomy was very easy for me,” Dena explains. “If someone told you that you were getting on an airplane and it had an 87 percent chance of crashing—not killing you, but crashing—would you get on the airplane?”
But the decisions that followed weren’t so easy. Which surgeon would she go to? Which type of reconstructive surgery would she have, and who would perform it? Were there support groups for women like her?
Dena’s answer came two weeks later at a Texas Stars hockey game sponsored by the Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas. The BCRC is a comprehensive resource hub in the Austin metro area providing support, education, and information for women in all stages of breast cancer. Dena wasn’t sure she should call them; after all, she didn’t actually have breast cancer.
But she called them anyway. “BCRC was what kept me focused on the idea that, yes, being BRCA2 positive was just like having cancer. They made me feel just as important, as if I called saying I had breast cancer,” Dena says. BCRC guided her through the steps leading up to surgery and helped her find a local support group. “I know without [BCRC], I think I would have fallen apart during the decision-making process,” she says.
Life after Foobs
In April 2014, Dena underwent an elective double mastectomy. When she awoke, relief swept over her. “I don’t have to live in fear anymore. Cancer may get me somewhere else, but at least I have lowered my odds of ovarian and breast cancer,” Dena explains.
Does she miss her breasts? Not really. “I was not emotionally attached to my breasts. They’ve given me enough trouble over the years,” Dena says. In subsequent surgeries, doctors gave Dena her own set of “foobs,” or “fake boobs” as she and other cancer survivors call them.
Looking ahead to her future, Dena sees hope. With the love of her life, Mike, her family, and the encouragement she’s received from other women in her support group, Dena’s finally stepping out from under her family’s genetic shadow, ready to embrace life and help others who are on their cancer journey.
“I’m more secure of myself now than I ever have been. I feel beautiful inside, and I think using all the support groups has helped me realize there are so many of us. I think it is important to use the resources out there for Texas women—I’ve never felt ashamed to be BRCA2 positive,” Dena explains. “My goals are to be there for anyone else who needs me so I can pass on the goodwill. Hopefully, I’m just going to be the person who lifts them up and makes them laugh.”