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South Charleston woman survives losing sister, preventative mastectomy and hysterectomy

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Joan Belcher found out she had a nearly 90 percent chance of getting breast cancer, she didn't think twice about doing something about it.

Belcher, of South Charleston, lost her identical twin sister, Jane Ferrell, to breast cancer and didn't want the same for herself.

"I just figured I was very fortunate," Belcher, 74, said. "I felt empowered that I could do something about it...if my sister had had that opportunity, she would still be here."

Belcher underwent a preventative double mastectomy and a hysterectomy last year after testing positive for gene mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Doctors told her she had an 87 percent chance of breast cancer and a 43 percent chance at getting ovarian cancer. 

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are normal genes, but a person's risk of cancer rises when those genes mutate.

Belcher's family has a long history of cancer. Her sister developed cancer just months after her retirement and died two years later in 2006.

Besides her sister, Belcher's mother, two aunts, and grandmother all had varying types of cancer.

Hereditary cancers are rare and account for only 8 to 10 percent of cancer cases, Dr. Roberto Kusminsky, medical director of the Breast Center at Charleston Area Medical Center, told the Gazette in May.

Belcher and her sister were close. A wall in Belcher's South Charleston home displays portraits of the women together. One shows Belcher and Ferrell as young women, their blond hair pulled back into curly up-dos. In another, the women wear matching red sweaters and haircuts. 

Belcher's home used to belong to Jane and her husband, but the memories there were too much for him after she died so he decided to sell it. Belcher couldn't stand the thought of anyone else having it.

"We were very close; we talked everyday," Belcher said. "We were just as close as you could be. It was like losing my soul mate when she died."

Belcher had always suspected one day she would get cancer. She was never overly concerned about it, though. It's not in her nature to worry.

At her doctor's suggestion, she was tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations at the Breast Center.

When doctors recommended both a hysterectomy and a bilateral mastectomy, Belcher said she would have had them done the next day if she could.

"It just makes you feel that you have a better chance to live a little longer," Belcher said. "Now, I may have some other type of cancer... but the chances of the breast cancer were very high. So I felt lucky that I could do something to give me a little longer."

Belcher retired from the banking industry last May when she decided to have the surgeries. She had her hysterectomy in June at CAMC with the da Vinci Surgical System, a minimally-invasive surgical robot. She underwent the mastectomy and reconstruction, also at CAMC, in September.

"[The surgical system] is wonderful," Belcher said. "You hardly know you have surgery, which is nice."

After the hysterectomy, Belcher was back to doing some light work in her flower garden by mid-July, she said.

Gardening is a favorite pastime for Belcher. Her orchids -- pink, yellow, white and purple -- sit in planters by the windows in her dining room.

Doctors advised her to take it easy after the surgery, even though she felt surprisingly well. 

"I could have gone to work in two, three weeks [after the hysterectomy] easily," Belcher said. "As a matter of fact, Dr. Bush said you really have to be careful because you don't feel like you have surgery, although you have. So be careful and don't do lifting or anything like that."

Belcher said she never worried what her body might look like after her mastectomy.

"It's interesting what they can do to make you look whole," she said. "You can't even tell that I had surgery, except you can see a few scars."

Belcher's insurance covered both the testing and surgery costs, though she said she would have had the surgery even if it wasn't covered.

Neither Belcher nor her sister had children, "so we didn't pass it on to anyone," she said.

Still, Belcher is encouraging her nieces and even her brothers to be vigilant for signs of breast cancer. Men can get breast cancer, too.

"If you have cancer in your family, have the testing done," Belcher said. "It's so worth it because that way you know what your options are, what the percentage of your cancer is going to be."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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