Chaundra Dominguez and Cynthia Reese, Nurse Practitioner, are peer group leaders leading a new support group for people with an increased risk of cancer.
The group is the Walla Walla chapter of FORCE, Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered. This is a national group whose mission is to improve the lives of those fighting hereditary breast, ovarian and related cancers.
Dominguez began her journey several years ago when her cousin found out she had cancer. Dominguez began to learn about specific mutated genes that increase the cancer risk. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are two such genes; a genetic test can determine if you have these and other gene mutations.
Once a risk is made known, steps can be taken to improve one’s health with diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices. Each person’s health journey is uniquely their own, with an array of decisions with potentially huge consequences. Some opt for a pre-emptive strike such as prophylactic surgery to remove breasts and ovaries.
Dominguez learned she had the gene mutation and the increased risk. When she went in for her first mammogram, she found she had a breast cancer. It was noninvasive, so she chose a lumpectomy. Later, she had an invasive cancer in the other breast. She ended up having a double mastectomy and her ovaries removed.
It was frightening, and brought with it many things to consider. The concerns of her husband and family were a big part of it. But her loved ones were very sympathetic.
“I had such great family support,” Dominguez said.
Having her ovaries out pushed her into surgically induced menopause, which brought with it its own challenges. But she wanted to be ahead of the risk.
“Ovarian cancer is the scary one,” she said.
This is because there generally aren’t symptoms in its early stages, so it’s difficult to detect when it’s more easily treated.
Between the health struggles of her cousin and herself, Dominguez ended up at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle.
“A genetic counselor gave me information about FORCE, and it really was empowering. They have ‘peer navigators’ to work with you. That’s huge. You fill out a form and then they match you up with someone whose situation is most like yours. I knew I wanted to be a peer navigator and help others.”
She saw the value in support meetings, but the closest one was in Seattle. To start one here would require planning, fundraising and the help of a medical professional.
Cynthia Reese stepped up as the medical representative for the group, and as a peer leader. She’s a nurse practitioner at the Women’s Clinic at Walla Walla Clinic who worked with Dominguez in the early part of her journey with genetic testing. Reese also did fundraising to get the group started.
“Cynthia did the hard work of getting donations,” Dominguez said.
They had to have a certain amount of money in the bank and had to have training before the local group could officially get established. Then Walla Walla Clinic paid half of the money needed to help get the group started.
“We’d like to maybe have one meeting a month if we can or maybe one every other month. We’re shooting for having a meeting in mid-February,” she said.
The group met unofficially at an introductory session awhile back.
“It was a beautiful first meeting,” Reese said. “We’re now officially established.”
They are gradually reaching out to hospitals and clinics.
Reese does genetic testing locally; some insurances cover it.
“That’s not typically a problem as long as you qualify for testing,” she said.
That’s usually the case if your insurance company considers it preventive.
Because of inheriting certain risk factors for illnesses, knowing your family’s health history can help you anticipate what you might face.
“When I used to write my family’s medical history, I was just guessing, but it’s really so important. So you should be asking questions. Then you can choose preventative care and be making good decisions,” Dominguez said.
“But there’s no right decisions for everybody,” because each person’s health situation is different.
The group has participants of a variety of ages. Men are welcome, spouses are welcome and guest speakers will be invited to share information with the group.
“Cancer just doesn’t have the same face for everyone,” Dominguez said. “You want to catch it early for the best possible outcome.”