The BRCA Gene: An Intimate Conversation with a Double-Mastectomy Survivor

The content is purely for informational and entertainment purposes only and should not be taken as medical or other professional advice.  

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we sat down with the face of our latest Mastectomy Bra shoot Tara Megan Vasilenko, a special-education teacher, mother, and wife, to discuss her story, the BRCA gene, and what keeps her moving forward in a post-op world.

Tell us your story—what lead to your surgery?

“My grandmother on my mom’s side was diagnosed with breast cancer a month before I was born 30 years ago, and she had a single mastectomy. Then, 12 years later, it traveled to her lungs—she never smoked—and so they believed it was the breast cancer.

After she passed away, my mom’s breast surgeon told her and my father ‘I think you should get tested for this gene.’ Sure enough, my mom wasn’t a carrier, but my dad was. I got tested at 21 as a senior in college, and I found out I had this mutation—this gene. And at that time, she told me to live my life and make sure I get checked every year, and as I get older, they’d want to monitor me more. So, I did, I did what she told me to do, and it was very difficult as a young woman to get tested under insurance. I think in all, it’s been 10 years, and I’ve only had about two or three MRIs when my doctor wanted me to have one once a year.

After I had my baby, I went for an annual in October and my doctor felt like I should start considering the surgery. I kind of laughed because 10 years ago I was told to come back when I was done having kids, but I was just getting started. I went for a second opinion from my original doctor, Michelle Blackwood, who said she would like me to consider getting the surgery, too. I said that I wanted to have another baby. But she said okay, before you start trying, promise me an MRI.

I went for the MRI in April of 2023, and I got a call that they found two abnormalities, one in each breast. I was very upset and scared, but I was reassured that it could be nothing. So, I went ahead and had more imaging before they did the biopsy. They had to see where it was. I went for my ultrasound—all was fine. I went that same day for a mammogram—nothing showed up. The radiologist said, ‘listen, nothing’s showing up, and if you were anyone else, I would say come back in six months, but because you have this gene, I’m a little hesitant.’ He told me he was going to send me for another MRI.

Sure enough, I was in the imaging machine, and I remember them putting me in, taking me out, and saying both abnormalities are there and we’re going to biopsy.

I remember holding my breath, trying not to cry, thinking I have a beautiful baby girl at home. But I was determined that this was the start. Let’s get this surgery done, let’s do this. I just got a wave of ‘I’m not letting this beat me.’

At times I do feel guilt that I never went through cancer. I never went through chemo. But I am also so grateful and honored that I had these doctors who were willing to help me, save my life, and add more years to be here for my daughter. That was the most important thing.”

Vasilenko modeling the Body by Victoria Smooth Mastectomy Bra.

What is the BReast CAncer gene?

“The BRCA gene is short for breast cancer, and it identifies breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other types. There are tests to see what kind of genetic cancers you might have from your family, and show you what your percentage is and if you’re high risk.”

What’s something you think is misunderstood about breast cancer?

“I think just understanding that it can happen to anybody, at all degrees, but also it can happen at any age. That was one thing too that, because my grandmother had it, I just instantly thought ‘I’m going to get cancer when I’m 60.’ That was one thing that my plastic surgeon said—that they deal with BRCA patients that don’t want to have the surgery because they don’t have cancer yet, but then they get diagnosed and it’s too late. I don’t know what’s going on, but I will tell you that I feel like a lot more people our age are getting cancer diagnoses—20s, 30s—so, I think it’s very important that women start young and fight for it.”

Do you have a piece of advice around advocating for yourself?

“Doing your research. I’m blessed I have parents who are in the medical field, so I did have connections. But do your research, ask people. I think that’s a major reason why I wanted to do this story—I wanted to be an outlet for women who feel like they don’t have anybody. Because I did feel like that until I started opening up. I think it’s so important to just be there for each other, love each other, fight for your body, find a doctor, do your research, ask around. There has to be some sort of community.”

Did you have a mantra or words of inspiration that you’d tell yourself leading up to your surgery?

“No rain, no flowers. Just fight through, I did it for my daughter. It was also a mental and emotional thing. I started therapy two weeks ago because the anxiety has been tough. But it’s so important to know that you’re going to be okay.”

What’s something you’d like to tell people who are also diagnosed with the BRCA gene?

“It is not a cancer diagnosis, but at the same time, you need to be aware, and you need to stay on top of it. Insurance might turn you down, but find your doctors, have them help you. Take this as a blessing—be a bit more on top of getting on schedule, getting all those exams done, and know that there’s a community behind you that loves you and that’s here for you.”