Breast cancer survivor Davina Hall, of Hornchurch: ‘Cancer improved my life’
11:00 16 May 2013
This week, Angelina Jolie announced she had undergone a double mastectomy to cut her risk of breast cancer. Now Hornchurch teacher Davina Hall has spoken out about her decision last year to have the same procedure.
BRCA1 - the faulty gene
Everyone has the BRCA1 gene, but in some people it is mutated, which greatly increases the risk of certain cancers developing.
Women who carry BRCA1 have a 50 to 80 per cent risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetimes. Having both breasts removed cuts the cancer risk dramatically.
It was December 2009 when Davina was diagnosed. The primary school teacher had lost her dad Ian to cancer just eight months earlier, and her aunt had died of the disease aged 30.
“The first thing I said was: ‘It’s my turn now’,” said the brave 36-year-old.
“I still couldn’t believe it was happening, though.
“All I could think of was how would I break the news to mum. She’d already lost her husband to the disease.”
But six months after undergoing major surgery, Davina is determined to show cancer who’s boss. She’s been taking every opportunity that comes along, an attitude that’s already seen her balancing teaching with singing and modelling.
“My life used to be work,” she told the Romford Recorder. “I’d take work home with me in the evenings and work at the weekends – I worked really hard.
“Then I got ill and looked at my life and thought: ‘When do I go out and enjoy myself? When do I have fun?’ It makes you realise what’s important.”
For Elms Farm Road resident Davina, that was singing - she even got through to the third round of last year’s X Factor, which boosted her confidence and encouraged her to pursue her dream of singing professionally.
But her next challenge isn’t so much standing on a stage as running through a park - the 5km Cancer Research UK Race for Life in Brentwood on May 25. The run will raise cash for research into the disease that by Davina’s admission “ravaged” her family.
The ordeal began when Davina felt a “thickening” in her breast in 2009.
“Deep down I knew what it was because it runs in the family,” she said.
“I’ve known that since growing up.”
Sadly her fears were realised when a biopsy confirmed that the lump was cancerous.
Davina had the lump removed, and went on to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“The entire experience was very challenging,” she said. “I lost my hair, my body shape changed and I felt very ill from chemotherapy.
“I was pretty angry about the cancer – I couldn’t believe it had already ravaged our family and was back again.”
And a further blow came when Davina discovered she, her father and her brother Anthony, 29, all had a faulty gene that made them more susceptible to cancer.
As a carrier of the mutated BRCA1 gene, Davina had a very high chance of developing breast cancer – up to 80 per cent – so she decided to undergo a double mastectomy to cut the risk, a procedure that Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie this week announced she had recently undergone for the same reason.
Having both breasts removed sounds like a tough choice, but Davina said it was a “no brainer”.
“I decided to risk further surgery because as a BRCA1 carrier my chances of developing breast cancer were so high,” she said.
The gene is also linked to ovarian cancer and, in both men and women, bowel cancer. Davina, who now has regular ovarian screening, said she was glad to know about the faulty gene because it gave her control and knowledge for her family’s next generation.
But it’s also given her control over her own life in the here and now.
“Cancer has improved my life,” she said. “I don’t worry about the things I used to worry about now. I do more things for myself. Something good has got to come out of something bad.
“Nobody knows how long they’ve got. You have to live for today.”
Race for Life takes place in Weald Country Park, South Weald, from 11am on May 25.
Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “Only a small proportion of women who develop breast cancer – about one in 20 – do so because they’ve inherited a faulty gene from one of their parents.
“But it’s important that women who do carry these genes know that – thanks to decades of research and trials – there are now things they can do to reduce their risk. Having surgery is just one of several options – they can also have regular monitoring and screening with techniques like MRI scans.
“If you’re worried about having breast or ovarian cancer running in your family you should speak to your GP about whether you should consider genetic testing.
“It is important to remember that most of our risk comes from simply getting older, but there are things all of us can do to cut down our chances of cancer, such as not smoking, keeping a healthy body weight and limiting our alcohol intake.
“Spotting cancer early can be life saving, so you should go to your GP if you spot persistent changes to your body – for breast cancer that means any changes in the size, shape or feel of a breast, a change in the position of the nipple or nipple discharge, a new lump or thickening in one breast or armpit, puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin or a new pain or discomfort that’s only on one side.
“We are not helpless in the face of cancer: there is a lot we can do to reduce our chances of getting it, and to increase our chances of beating it if we do.”