A major milestone for a BRCA + ovarian cancer survivor
Kathleen Farmer just turned 60, a milestone for many, but according to Farmer she isn't many, she is the 1 in 500 women who have a gene mutation know as BRCA1 positive turning her chance of breast cancer to over 72 percent and ovarian cancer to nearly 50 percent.
On March 28, 2012, Farmer was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 3C with a 30 percent survival rate up to five years. But here it is past six years, she just turned 60, she has no evidence of cancer and her hair is long enough to donate to other cancer patients, so she is marking the milestone by going to the salon.
Take my card
You may know Farmer. She worked the meat counter at Vons in Oakhurst for 20 years. Or you may have met her over the last five years as she handed you her awareness card in the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino or True Value or her favorite haunts in Fresno and Angels Camp. Staring at the receiver is her portrait during chemo and it is meant to inform women about the BRCA gene mutation, cancer survival and early detection.
Five years ago, doctors found three tumors — one on her ovary, one on her fallopian tube and one across three lymph nodes in her groin. Nine days later, on Good Friday, she had a full hysterectomy. A month after that, she was in the chemo chair.
Farmer's family has a history of cancer. A grandmother died at 45 from breast cancer. Her older sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007. Her cousin was diagnosed a week before Farmer's diagnosis. And Farmer's 31-year-old niece was later diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
"Women of Norwegian descent are more susceptible to the gene mutation but we (her living family) are Vikings and we all fought it and won," Farmer says.
Based on Farmer's family history, doctors ordered a genetic test.
Farmer calls it a "faulty gene". The gene became famous when Angelina Jolie announced she had the same genetic mutation and elected to have a double mastectomy in a preemptive attack. Farmer made a similar decision, having all her breast tissue removed.
The procedure is called a PBM (Prophylactic Bilateral Mastectomy), and as long as all her breast tissue was gone, according to Farmer so was the potential 80 percent chance of having to battle a different cancer.
"I lost my hair, my ovaries, my beautiful estrogen and my breasts — it's a good thing I was voted best legs in high school," Farmer jokes.
Farmer hands out her card in hope she might save a life. If a woman recognizes the symptoms printed on her card, takes stock of her family's health history, or asks her doctor for a BRCA test, CA 125 test or a pelvic ultrasound, Farmer says, it's a win.
Her passionate learning about BRCA has potentially saved two of her cousins — they tested positive and elected preemptive surgeries.
"It's all about early detection, especially with ovarian cancer," Farmer says. "If you're on it, your survival rate becomes about 90 percent, but it's hard because most often ovarian cancer is detected at late stage because symptoms mirror normal woman stuff."
Back at the salon
Her hair was a dirty blonde before the chemo. When it finally came back it was black, peppered with gray.
Marsi Bennik, one of three owners of Trendz hair salon, brings out a measuring tape for Farmer's donation.
"I wish I could meet the woman who gets my hair," Farmer says. "You get looked at a lot when you're a bald woman. A bald man is handsome; a bald, middle-aged woman, well, they know you're not some Sinead O'Connor. You're a medical emergency."
Her hair is 12 inches beyond her shoulders, 2 inches longer than she hoped.
Bennik has paid witness to Farmer's five-year fight. The graduated A-line bob is on the house.
"I've seen her totally bald, with little fuzzies, and now I get to cut her hair," Bennik says. " I've seen her light the path of other women. It feels amazing."
Bennik says Farmer's outlook has remained nothing but positive. And though Farmer herself will tell you that cancer never leaves a patient, her response to her new haircut only reflects Bennik's sentiment.
"I love it. I can't wait to grow it back out and maybe by 2020 I'll have enough hair to donate again."