At 23, aspiring filmmaker Kate Lahood has already made some difficult choices. At the top of that list was having a double mastectomy at just 22 years old, after discovering she had the BRCA1 gene – meaning she has a high risk of developing breast cancer.
A year before Angelina Jolie made international news when she went through the exact same procedure, Kate decided to remove both breasts to lower her chances of contracting the life-threatening illness.
“When they discovered I had the gene, I was told there was an 85% chance I would contract breast cancer,” says Kate, who was 19 when she got herself checked – she is one of the youngest women in New Zealand to have had a double mastectomy.
“It was hard being so young, because I had to fight for my decision. Some surgeons were against it and tried to talk me out of it. They told me I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed when I had children. But I’d rather be alive to have children. When I tested positive, I wasn’t going to sit around and wait.”
The New Plymouth-raised woman has seen first-hand the horrific effects of cancer, after witnessing her father, Brent, battle the illness. He died from pancreatic cancer in 2008.
Brent raised the red flag for his four children, when he was tested to see if he carried genes that meant his offspring were also prone to any types of cancer. He discovered he had the BRCA1 gene, which meant Kate had a 50% chance of carrying it, and therefore had a high chance of developing not only breast cancer, but also ovarian cancer.
“After seeing my dad being so sick for a whole year, I just wanted to get rid of any chance of it happening again.”
When Kate got herself tested for the gene and discovered the bad news, she acted immediately.
“As soon as they told me, it was like a kick in the guts. I met with genetic services and did lots of research. My auntie went through the exact same procedure, so I could look to her for help.”
There was no doubt in Kate’s mind that she would undergo the life-changing procedure. She says she had large breasts – 10GG – and welcomed the chance to make changes.
“I hated my breasts and always wanted a reduction. I thought I would be killing two birds with one stone.”
Before going under the knife, she had a photoshoot to remember her old self and celebrated with a cake – of two breasts.
But it’s been an incredibly difficult journey. Kate was told she would have breast reconstruction within three months, but more than a year on, she is still waiting for the surgery.
“I’ve had emotionally hard times. I don’t like looking at myself in the mirror. I often wonder what people think when they see me, because I look so different. It will be exciting to have the reconstruction and feel normal again.”
Despite the hard times, Kate is grateful that her future looks brighter. Older sister Jemma has also tested positive for the gene and Kate hopes that she has paved the way for her sibling.
“After seeing me go through the surgery, it might be easier for her if she decides to do the same thing"
Although she has a 50% of contracting ovarian cancer, Kate wants to delay that surgery until after she’s had children.
She says it’s great the procedure gained exposure when Angelina Jolie spoke publicly about her own journey. And Kate hopes that sharing her story will help inspire others.
“My advice to other women is to feel comfortable with any decision they make. It is really hard, but always try and think of the positives.”
As she looks to her future, Kate remembers her dad and wishes he was by her side.
“He would be supportive and very proud I’m sure.”
Photos: David white • Make-up: Kate Smith