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With her sisters, Kate Downey Berges (bottom left) bravely tested for a hereditary gene mutation carrying increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer; and underwent preventative surgery to stay alive. Shown with Berges are sisters Ann Downey Little (top), Marti Downey Lemp (center), and Meg Downey Hardy (bottom right). (Photo courtesy of Kate Berges )
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Best-selling author and Today Show TV host Hoda Kotb's newest book shares inspirational stories about people following that inner voice to embrace change or even fight for a dream. In a case of kismet, Hoda will soon meet another inspirational person—Kate Berges—together with about 275 of Kate’s biggest supporters and Hoda’s greatest fans.
“I do believe everything happens for a reason; and I believe I was ‘meant’ to raise awareness, with the incredible support of my community, family and friends,” says Kate, a Branford resident.
At noon on April 5, Hoda comes to Branford to speak at Kate’s 5th Annual BRCA Fundraiser luncheon at Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club. BRCA stands for the BReast CAncer susceptibility gene. BRCA gene tests use DNA to pinpoint mutations in either one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2. The two are most commonly associated with increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Hoda will share stories from her new book, Where We Belong: Journeys That Show Us the Way (2016, Simon & Shuster) and all attendees will receive a signed book. Seating’s limited; tickets are available now at www.hodaforbrca.eventbrite.com Each $100 ticket ($75 tax deductible) or Diamond, Gold, Silver or Bronze sponsorship helps raise funds to benefit FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) and The Basser Center for BRCA.
As a touching side-note, Hoda is a breast cancer survivor of eight years and shared her own journey through diagnosis, surgery and recovery with her television audience.
“Hoda is the perfect guest speaker—she has the amazing blend of warmth, honesty, experience, humor and wisdom to attract a full house and deliver a meaningful message,” says Kate, adding, “Her presence will exponentially increase the rippling effect of awareness of BRCA mutations! Because of her, I look forward to a successful event in terms of both awareness and funds raised.”
To understand hereditary BRCA gene mutations and the resulting personal challenges a positive gene test brings, think of Angelina Jolie. In 2013, the Hollywood star’s decision to undergo BRCA genetic testing, followed by a preventative double mastectomy, put BRCA in the spotlight.
But Jolie’s story had yet to unfold when Kate began her intricate entanglement with BRCA mutations. In 2009, Kate and her three sisters made the brave choice to be tested for mutation markers.
The decision came after a second cousin on Kate’s father’s side was diagnosed with breast cancer (the cousin’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 and later died of ovarian cancer in her 50’s). Kate’s grandmother on her father’s side also had cancer, passing away at age 35.
“My second cousin’s genetic counselor told her to inform us, explaining our risk,” says Kate.
Kate and her three sisters tested positive.
“My oldest sister then found out she had breast cancer through an MRI and my youngest sister , ovarian cancer, through what she had hoped to be the prophylactic (preventative) removal of her ovaries,” says Kate.
Within 18 months, 18 multiple surgeries were undertaken among all of the family members (including preventative surgery for Kate). Her two sisters with cancer underwent chemo, as well. All four sisters, now in their 50’s, have since resumed their lives, while each also does their part to help others.
As a mom, experienced RN and professional photographer, Kate has made it her mission to do what she can to raise awareness and funds for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer research related to BRCA mutations.
“While it’s scary to learn of one’s mutation, it’s lifesaving information. Knowledge is power,” says Kate. “My family was shocked to learn about our mutation. But without this lifesaving knowledge, my three sisters and I might not be alive today. We were lucky to find out before these aggressive cancers had developed further. I wanted to increase awareness in order to spare suffering and lives.”
In addition to stressing the importance of testing, Kate emphasizes BRCA mutations are connected to both breast and ovarian cancer (not just breast cancer, as the BRCA acronym suggests). She cites “staggering statistics”—the BRCA1 mutation carries an 87 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer, and 40-to-60 percent chance of ovarian cancer. There’s a 50 percent chance of carrying the mutation if either parent has the mutation; says Kate, stressing, “...paternal history matters.”
“My three sisters and I all found out we had inherited a BRCA1 mutation from our father,” she points out.
Kate’s family came through the eye of the storm with each other for support; but with little information to glean from outside sources.
“We were surprised by the lack of knowledge in both the medical community and society at large at the time,” says Kate.
Luckily, the family found FORCE, the leading national nonprofit devoted to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
“Sue Friedman, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, founded FORCE in 1999 to fill the information void for individuals and families with hereditary cancer, and to help them advocate for themselves,” Kate explains.
FORCE’s mission includes support, education, advocacy, awareness, and research. Its programs serve anyone with a BRCA mutation or a family history of cancer. Kate’s family, the Downeys, got involved.
“In an effort to help FORCE spread awareness and help others from being blindsided like we were, my parents started a fund within FORCE to help educate the public and medical community about BRCA mutation,” says Kate.
The Downey sister’s touching story, “Learning to Dance in the Rain” is published at the Downey family donation page at http://www.facingourrisk.org For her part, in 2012, Kate’s powerful photographs of mastectomies of courageous BRCA women were featured in FORCE’s “Show and Tell” room during the annual “Joining FORCEs” International Conference. During the 2014 annual conference, Kate was honored with “Spirit of Empowerment Award” for individual commitment including her annual BRCA fundraising efforts in Branford.
“I am proud to be a small part of FORCE’s efforts to educate and support individuals and families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer,” says Kate. “I was a lucky one; and I have been lucky to ‘give back’ through the tremendous support of my community.”
Another BRCA cause Kate supports wholeheartedly is the “incredible research” underway at the Basser Center, says Kate. Located within the Philadelphia (PA) Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center (www.basser.org) the Basser Center is making strides due to “...amazing collaboration amongst researchers,” Kate notes.
“Teamed up with FORCE, these organizations are educating, supporting and accelerating research to ensure better choices for future generations,” says Kate.
The Basser Center has jump-started research with an initial $25 million in private funding from co-founders Jon and Mindy Gray. To assist Kate this year, the Grays have purchased copies of Hoda’s book, Where We Belong to distribute to all attendees at the April 5 BRCA Fundraiser.
Kate is thrilled to continue to able to help others by supporting these two organizations with her BRCA fundraising event.
“Helping others has helped me feel less helpless when hearing the difficult challenges facing families afflicted with BRCA-related cancers,” says Kate. “My heart also goes out to the next generation with these mutations, in my own family and beyond. I want them to be aware of the support and hope that both organizations offer. I want them to also be aware of the latest research which can help them make informed decisions. They have tough and complicated decisions to make, and often draconian surgeries to face, at such young ages.”
Kate adds she has many others to thank for helping her to help others through the annual fundraiser.
“I am just the voice, the conduit, of the message that the knowledge can save one’s life,” says Kate. “I have a core group of creative, talented and passionate friends and family, including my three kids, who have supported me in growing this event. Their enthusiasm, loyalty and support have been critical to its success. They, along with my boyfriend, are the wind beneath my wings.”
The 5th Annual BRCA Fundraiser to benefit FORCE and The Basser Center for BRCA, with guest speaker, Hoda Kotb, is Tues. April 5, 2016, noon- 3:30 p.m.; Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club, Branford. Luncheon, raffle, cash bar and signed copy of “Where We Belong.” Purchase tickets, $100 ($75 tax deductible) for limited seating (first come, first served) at www.hodaforbrca.eventbrite.com or by mailing a check, payable to FORCE, to Kate Berges, 2 MacLean Place, Branford, CT 06405. Event Diamond, Gold, Silver and Bronze sponsorships available; more information at www.hodaforbrca.eventbrite.com
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