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Finding the strength, beating the odds

West Linn resident undergoes preventative surgery to beat cancer


by: VERN UYETAKE - Shelly Ryan was diagnosed with cancer twice before receiving genetic testing, which revealed she had a genetic mutation that predisposed her to cancer.West Linn resident Shelly Ryan harnessed the power of fear and the unknown into measures that would save her life and the lives of her family members. The journey it took to get there, to the realization that she had even the smallest sliver of control, was faced with trials and tribulations.

Ryan, 51, has lived in West Linn for 25 years. By day she is an office manager with a public accounting firm. By night she teaches fitness classes at 24 Hour Fitness.

She was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 1998. The tumor was small enough that she did not require chemotherapy and radiation. Instead, she had a mastectomy.

“I didn’t compute at all,” she said, referring to her diagnosis. “I’m a professional health adviser; I live what I instruct. It just didn’t add up.”

Then in 2000, Ryan was diagnosed with cancer again — in the same area — only this time it had spread to her lymph node. The doctors weren’t sure whether the original cancer had spread or a new cancer had formed and Ryan was rushed into chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“The second time everything moved really fast,” she said. “I didn’t have a second to stop and consider the whys. I just had to survive.”

The information and diagnoses didn’t add up. Ryan’s family — her father, brother and sister-in-law are all geneticists in Salt Lake City — chose to take proactive measures. Just before Ryan was diagnosed for the second time, her father underwent genetic testing.

“He’s a scientist and he said, ‘This is what we do,’” Ryan said of her father.

His test results claimed he had a genetic variation of uncertain significance. The family still sought answers. After Ryan’s second diagnosis they thought she may carry a genetic mutation that would unlock the family’s battle with cancer.

Ryan’s father’s side of the family had a troubling history. Her grandfather was the only son amongst eight daughters. His mother died at age 53 of breast cancer and seven of his sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Only two lived out a full life.

“My family asked me to get tested a lot,” she said. “I wasn’t the resister, I was the refuser. I felt kind of picked on in life. I had cancer not once but twice. ... The biggest hurdle for me was that it may be bad news. I was tired of bad news. ... How do you explain that you don’t want to know the unknown?”

Ryan read an article about a 31-year-old cancer survivor who would soon change her mind. Though she no longer remembers the woman’s name or even the publication of the story, she remembers the strength and courage of the woman who sought out genetic testing and, in return, underwent preventative surgery.

Although Ryan was still apprehensive, she made a pact with her family to get tested.

“There is a point in life where you kind of have to take yourself out of the computation,” she said. “I had to take myself out of the equation.”

Ryan’s genes became the answer to her family’s dilemma. Ryan was diagnosed in January 2010. She carries the BRCA2 gene — a mutation that predisposes people to certain types of cancer, including breast and ovarian cancers. Because of the mutation, she risked developing breast cancer again and ovarian cancer.

A few weeks after her diagnosis she had her healthy right breast removed and months later she had a complete hysterectomy. Removing her only breast and transitioning into early menopause was no easy task. But she found strength in her willpower and decision to live.

“All of a sudden it made lot more sense. It helped me come to terms. This is part of my genes. I’m a good person. I’m an altruist and I am grateful for my fit genes, my smart genes, my cheerful genes and all those things that come down. But health issues come too ... and I feel like I have a future now.”

Ryan’s results triggered other people in her family to get tested. Her sister and brother are the only two so far who have been found to carry the genetic mutation. Her sister had a hysterectomy, was later diagnosed with breast cancer and then too had a bilateral mastectomy.

Today, Ryan is considered in remission. Her oncologist for the past 13 years, Dr. Kathleen Fielder, works out of Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center, and in June Ryan finished the last of her medications.

Ryan has also become a cancer spokesperson of sorts. Last week she spoke about her 10-year battle and journey with genetic testing at her brother’s company, Myriad Genetics & Laboratory in Salt Lake City.

“There is a stigma with genetic testing and I understand both sides of the equation,” Ryan said. “I’m here to share my story and be a face that says, ‘Be alive. Leap over the hurdles. Humans are wired to live.’”

Ryan encourages people to be “the ambassador” of their own health care and, most importantly, she hopes her story will open the lines of communication among other families.

“Find out your family history. Talk to your parents. Talk to your grandparents. Get people talking and find out what is wrong,” she said. “Nobody likes to talk about what is wrong, but knowledge is power and sometimes knowledge is scary.”