For 69-year-old New Jersey native Rona Greenberg, cancer has always been a constant. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37 and passed away six years later, when Rona was 19 years old. In 1997, just three years after the BRCA genes 1 and 2 mutations were identified, Rona and her three sisters participated in a clinical study for high-risk Ashkenazi women. Her sisters tested negative, but Rona tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation. Children of individuals who carry the BRCA mutation have a 50 percent chance of carrying the mutation. Rona then had her two daughters tested, and discovered they are carriers as well.
Rona underwent a total hysterectomy in 1998 at age 50 because research shows that the prophylactic removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes reduces the risk of breast cancer by 50 percent. A 2010 mammogram showed Rona had early breast cancer, and she decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. “The decision was not difficult for me at all,” she says of the prophylactic measures. She’s seen so much suffering in her family that the opportunity to reduce her risk level was a welcome one.
But she couldn’t plan for everything, and Rona’s battle with cancer took another turn in 2015 when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after being tested for pains under her right rib cage. “When you are BRCA-positive, doctors don’t stress pancreatic cancer—it’s basically breast and ovarian, so it was not on my radar screen, but it happened.” Just 5 percent of BRCA2 carriers develop pancreatic cancer, but that number increases for the children of pancreatic cancer “pre-vivors”—a term Rona uses for patients currently battling cancer. Her daughters face a roughly 15 percent risk of getting pancreatic cancer, a statistic she finds unsettling.
What keeps Rona going is her ability to plan and map out her treatment. In 2015 Rona entered a clinical trial for patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer at Georgetown University Hospital. She made the four-and-a-half-hour trip to Washington D.C. every other week for ten months. As her cancer progressed, Rona had to leave the trial, but she had planned for this and immediately started working with a different oncologist doing cutting-edge research. For now she is taking each day as a new opportunity to seek information and provide it to others, as well as to advocate for cancer research. Last year, she was invited to participate in Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative to accelerate cancer research.