Living in fear was not an option for Emma Parlons, who took
the brave decision to have a double mastectomy after discovering she had a
genetic mutation which gave her an 85% chance of developing breast cancer.
Emma’s cousin, and many of the women on her father’s side of
the family, had breast cancer so she asked her father to get tested to see if
he carried the BRCA1 genetic mutation. The test proved positive, meaning Emma
had a 50% chance of also being a carrier.
‘I initially didn’t want to get
tested but I decided to go through with it,’ says Emma, whose brother Professor
Nick Yablon (BA Medieval and Modern History, 1994) studied at Birmingham.
‘At the time my head was spinning, all I could
think was what if I already had cancer? What would I do then? When I found out
I carried the genetic mutation I did a lot of homework, went to see a lot of
surgeons and decided to have a double mastectomy carried out by top surgeon Mr
‘The only other option was screening every six months, which is a hideous
thing to prepare yourself for. Losing my breasts was a small sacrifice compared
to having my life taken over by the prospect of getting cancer. For me, it was
just a get-out clause that meant I could continue being a mother to my children
and enjoying life.
‘It was a major operation but I had reconstructive surgery at the same time,
so I woke up with breasts, and I was incredibly relieved that they found no
traces of cancer in the tissue they removed. Afterwards I was euphoric that I’d
saved my life and avoided a hideous disease. Recovery took around six weeks but
it actually gave me a chance to slow down and enjoy some quality time with my
There is a 50% chance that Emma’s nine-year-old daughter has the same
genetic mutation, and Emma hopes research at the University of Birmingham will
give more choices to the next generation of BRCA1 carriers.
In the School of Cancer Sciences, Dr Jo Morris and her team are working
towards making normal breast epithelial cells that have the same
genetics as women like Emma. By making very precise changes in these cells so
that they have particular BRCA1 mutations, they hope to discover the very early
cellular changes that signal the cells are turning into cancer. Ultimately,
they hope women might be treated for the very early signs of cancer without
ever becoming too ill or having dramatic preventative treatments.
‘Jo’s research is breaking new
ground. She can see what she needs to do and she is going to give the next
generation more options. That is all we can ask for,’ Emma says.
‘At the moment the only options
for BRCA1 carriers are screening or major surgery. It would be amazing to think
my daughter could have another option such as drugs or genetic analysis.’
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