Zora Brown: Breast and Ovarian Cancer

For me, cancer was a journey that began before I was born. Both my great-grandmother and grandmother were diagnosed with breast cancer at a time when little was known about this disease—and there was little reason for hope.

Mammography had not yet been invented; genetic factors were unknown; radical mastectomy was virtually the only treatment option; and the survival statistics were grim. No one knew what caused breast cancer, so it was something to discuss in whispers. A secret shame.

So much has improved since then, even during my own lifetime. We know today, for example, why cancer has affected 5 generations of women in my family: A genetic mutation of the BRCA1 gene, handed down from mother to daughter, predisposes us to breast and ovarian cancer. We also know that, as African-Americans, the women of the Brown family and others like us are at risk for more aggressive cancers that strike earlier and have higher fatality rates.

Understanding my family and racial histories taught me to be alert and proactive about my health. Although this knowledge did not render me immune from breast cancer, it did facilitate early detection of the disease—first in 1981 when I was just 32, and then again in 1997. That early detection helped me survive and take back my life. As members of a high-risk family, my sisters and I, and now my nieces, have come to understand that we have been given not a genetic curse, but the gift of knowledge and the inspiration to use that knowledge to address the challenges of cancer, and to imbue other survivors with hope.

Now in the midst of my third round with cancer—stage III ovarian cancer, which was detected in 2005—I know all too well what a serious adversary I face. But I also know how to be an advocate for myself, arm myself with information, and surround myself with support and the best that science has to offer.

As a result, I continue to thrive day after day. I have seized the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial for patients who have the BRCA1 gene, and the experience is not only allowing me to receive a cutting-edge treatment, but also to contribute to research that will advance the scientific understanding of cancer and benefit future women like myself.

The Brown women are a living testament to the power of scientific research to significantly reduce the ravages of this insidious disease. Generation by generation, we are evidence of how far medical research has taken us, and I believe in its power to someday put an end to this cycle of disease once and for all.

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) was deeply saddened by the loss of Zora Brown, a trustee for the AACR Foundation for the Prevention and Cure of Cancer, a breast and ovarian cancer survivor and a pioneering advocate for cancer research and breast cancer awareness among minorities. Ms. Brown died on March 3, 2013 and left an amazing legacy (learn more).

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