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'It saved her life': Genetic testing changes life of Grayslake woman

Sandra McPherson, a fourth-grade bilingual teacher at the Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach, talks about the Round Lake map she had discussed with her students in the virtual classroom she created at her home in Grayslake.
Sandra McPherson, a fourth-grade bilingual teacher at the Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach, talks about the Round Lake map she had discussed with her students in the virtual classroom she created at her home in Grayslake.

GRAYSLAKE – National Breast Cancer Awareness Month may be coming to an end, but Sandra McPherson is hoping her story continues to resonate and save lives. 

Because it’s all about the power of awareness. 

McPherson, a fourth grade teacher at Avon Center Elementary School in Round Lake Beach, had little reason to believe she had any hidden genetic risk for developing breast cancer.

Still, she underwent genetic testing at NorthShore University Health System’s Center for Personalized Medicine. She learned she was positive for the BRCA 2 gene, indicating a high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. 

That test – a simple blood draw offered through a partnership between NorthShore and Color, a genetics and health care company – changed her life. 

“It saved her life, in my view,” said Dr. Edward Lee, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology for NorthShore University Health System, who suggested the genetic testing to McPherson. 

Through the genetic testing program, patients and their doctors gain insight about any risk for cancer and heart conditions. The results can help doctors develop screening and prevention plans best tailored to patients, according to information provided on the program at www.northshore.org.

Because of her results, the 49-year-old McPherson had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery last year. When surgeries resumed at NorthShore in July, she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. 

She’s now back to teaching from a virtual classroom in her Grayslake home.

“This information is powerful,” McPherson said. “I no longer have to worry about having cancer.”

McPherson’s 24-year-old daughter, Ali, has the same mutation and is following a new screening regimen with annual MRIs and breast exams every six months. She’s also considering a bilateral mastectomy within the next five years to reduce her risk of cancer.

NorthShore patients learn of the genetic testing program as part of their routine care, Lee said. For those who aren’t familiar with the test, he sometimes uses Angelina Jolie as an example. The famous actress tested for the BRCA gene and decided to have her breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.

McPherson’s gene indicated an estimated 70% lifetime risk for breast cancer and a 20% risk for ovarian cancer, Lee said. 

The bilateral mastectomy and removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes was the best option, McPherson said. 

“It’s better to take action now,” she said.

She didn’t want to end up with cancer and have to undergo treatment such as chemotherapy. She didn’t want her three children to be in a position where they’d have to take care of her.

“Cancer is so awful, so terrible. I didn’t want to regret it one day,” she said. “I’m not very different than I was before, but the thing is I don’t have to worry about it.”

The genetic testing program begins with a questionnaire as part of routine screening, Lee said.

Based on the responses of the patient, a genetic test could be recommended, he said. 

He’s encountered some patients who say they don’t want to know because they think they’re simply going to worry about it.

“I would tell all patients to have a healthy curiosity and awareness for things like this, especially genetics that can impact their health,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s necessary for everyone to get that blood test, but everyone should be asked about genetic history. If there are positives that come up, I think it’s valuable to have these tests done.

“This is just another way for us doctors to help better take care of you,” he said. “In Sandra’s case, I think it’s going to extend her life.”

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