Cancer awareness week offers options, hope

Nicole Pangle, of Stephens City, had preventive surgery to avoid ovarian cancer, which runs in her family. Rich Cooley/Daily

In October 2013, Nichole Pangle got a call that changed her life. Her mother had stage 4 ovarian cancer with a tennis ball-sized tumor. Nichole knew it was time to get tested.

Ovarian cancer is known as the “silent killer,” Pangle said, as symptoms don’t develop until it’s too late, which is how her mother reached stage 4 before being diagnosed.

Nichole Pangle has a long family history of ovarian cancer and she tested positive for the BRCA mutation.

“Cancer has always been a part of my family,” Pangle said. Her grandmother and great-grandmother both died from ovarian cancer and her uncle died of prostate cancer.

The BRCA mutation is hereditary and signifies potential cancer. Doctors told Pangle that she had an 87 percent chance of developing cancer when she was tested for the mutation.

Pangle said that everyone has a BRCA 1 and a BRCA 2 gene, which are tumor suppressor genes. When they function normally, they suppress tumors. When a person has a mutation, he or she is unable to suppress the tumors, allowing the cancer to develop.

According to Pangle, there tends to be one cancer that hits hardest in a family from the BRCA mutation. In her family it was ovarian cancer.

To prevent the cancer from developing, in March 2014, Pangle chose to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed at age 34.

“It was a really difficult decision for me to make,” Pangle said, “I took it as a chance to live a happier lifestyle.”

In addition to ovarian cancer, the BRCA mutation also increases the odds of developing breast cancer. Pangle had a double mastectomy to bring those odds down as well.

According to Pangle, the surgeries brought her chances of developing cancer down to a 2- to 3-percent chance; the same chances as the general population.

Even with the preventative surgeries, there is still a chance of developing cancer in the future. “You’re not ever cured, you go through periods of remission,” Pangle said.

But the surgeries gave her better odds. “I just want to be a mom to my kids, for as long as I can,” she added.

With those better odds came a physical toll as well. Like with any surgery, there was an impact on her body. Pangle said her system has slowed down. This is because her body is no longer producing hormones it used to and her body hasn’t adjusted to the change.

Pangle said memory slips occur periodically and she has to limit strenuous activities. She still runs and bikes, but her endurance has decreased. With a slowdown in metabolism, weight gain is a side effect, but can be managed with a healthy diet.

Even after the surgeries, Pangle still has to go in for testing. When people test positive for the BRCA mutation, every six months they receive a mammogram and an MRI to check for signs of cancer due to the increased likelihood of developing a cancer.

Since the mutation is hereditary, Pangle worries about the future of her two children. Her children each have a 50/50 chance of testing positive for the mutation.

She said to test for the mutation one must be at least 18 years old. This is because of maturity levels and being able to make a decision about how to handle the results.

To find out her family’s cancer history, Pangle said she had an ancestry report conducted and traced her family roots back to Germany. Since then, she has discovered family members in Germany who are also struggling with cancer.

“It made me learn a lot about ancestry and genetics,” Pangle said.

But Pangle wants others to take action and check for the BRCA mutation as well, especially those with a family history of cancer. This week marked the Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week, which is why Pangle wanted to get her story out at this time.

Pangle said she wants people to understand that developing the BRCA mutation isn’t a death sentence. “My goal is for men and women to understand there are options and hope.”

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com