"With BRCA1, I had an 87% chance of getting breast cancer in my lifetime. Those odds don't work for me." - Jessica Gardner
Breast cancer runs deep in Jessica Gardner's family history; so much so that she assumed she would die from it one day too. But rest assured, Jessica will NEVER get breast cancer and no longer has to live with that fear.
At her nurse practitioner's suggestion, she underwent genetic testing and the results were alarming. She had an 87% chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime. Not a girl to sit around and wait, Jessica immediately took action. She opted to have a double mastectomy and is now fully recovered. Nope, Jessica will NOT die from breast cancer. From being an actress and business owner to a wife and dog mama, Jessica has way too much living left to do!
If you have a family history of breast cancer, we strongly urge you to research genetic testing for BRCA mutations. Click here to find out more!
Every Ella: Hi Jessica! Tell us about yourself.
Jessica Gardner: I'm originally from Warwick, Rhode Island. I'm an actor, I own a workshop studio for actors and I own a skincare business with Rodan + Fields. I'm the wife of a writer, the mama of my rescue dog Ellie (aka Elaine Stritch, named after my comedy heroine), the producer of the web series "The Glass Slipper Confessionals", lover of Boston sports teams and all things Disney, and I just completed my first half marathon. (I was soooo slow but I'm working on getting faster!)
Breast cancer runs in your family. Who has it impacted and did you assume it would happen to you too?
It sure does. Many women in my family died young from breast cancer, including my great aunt at 36, my second cousin at 33 and my mother at 51. I grew up hearing that dying from cancer was my family’s "curse." Because of this, I lived with the dark shadow of cancer following me. I just assumed I too would die from breast cancer at a young age.
A few years ago, you decided to have genetic testing. What made you make that decision?
A nurse practitioner looked at my family history and asked if anyone had undergone genetic testing. I turned it down and pushed it away because of my continuing negative feelings. She basically said, “Are you stupid?" and followed that up with, "You live in Los Angeles. Some of the best doctors and surgeons in the country live here!" I don’t like being called stupid and I sure don’t like feeling stupid. I called a genetic counselor.
Does insurance cover this type of testing and who is usually eligible?
Most insurance companies will pay for genetic counseling and testing with low or no out-of-pocket costs for people who meet certain criteria; like if someone in your family already has BRCA1 or BRCA2, for example. In my case, no one had ever been tested, but my family history was so strongly linked to breast cancer that I was able to have insurance cover it. The FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) website has a great list of which insurance companies cover it.
Can you explain the testing process and what your results were?
Before they give you the test, the counselors go through your full family history. They sit and explain facts and they dispel some myths (like “BRCA 1 and 2 can only be passed through the women in your family” Not true! But it is true that even if your parent has BRCA1 or BRCA2, you still only have a 50% chance of having it. If you do have it, you have a 50% chance of passing it on to your children. If you don’t have it, your kids can’t have the mutation.) The doctors counsel you and answer all your questions.The test itself is a simple blood or saliva test.
In May 2014, I learned I have the BRCA-1 genetic mutation.
You decided to get a double mastectomy. Was that a hard decision to make?
The hardest thing was making the appointment for genetic counseling. The fear of the unknown. Once I knew I had the BRCA1 genetic mutation, the rest was just math. With BRCA1, I had an 87% chance of getting breast cancer in my lifetime. Those odds don't work for me. I immediately made the decision that I wanted to have a prophylactic (preventative) double mastectomy.
If you find out you have cancer, you may need multiple surgeries, chemo, radiation… it can throw a wrench into your life, your family, your mental state, and your career. I can tell you that choosing WHEN to have my mastectomy and having it on MY terms was empowering. I'm not saying it was easy, but it was certainly easier than what I saw my mother go through.
How was the recovery process?
In June 2014, I woke up from my mastectomy smiling, knowing for sure that I had beaten breast cancer. It wasn't going to happen to me. Even now, I can't help but smile. It is a huge weight lifted off my chest. [Laughs] … Sorry, I love puns.
I was in the hospital for about 3 days total and then in bed for about 2 weeks. I couldn't wash my own hair, cook my own food or drive for about a month and a half while I healed, but I did travel and audition and work during that time.
Did you have reconstructive surgery?
Yes. And since everyone asks, I did get to keep my nipples. My scars? They are small and under my breasts so you can barely see them.
In March of 2015, I had my last reconstructive surgery. And I think I look pretty darn good. Better than before, even. So there's that. I initially had expanders put in my chest to make room for the implants, and they were uncomfortable, but it was worth the 5 months I had them for the outcome. (I went bigger, because… why not?)
You consider yourself a breast cancer PREVIVOR! How does that make you feel?
So grateful. Empowered instead of powerless to cancer.
What would you tell other women about getting tested early?
Talk to your family. Find out your family history. If you are considered high risk of hereditary cancer (with one or more of your family having breast, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer), get genetic counseling. For more info, check out the FORCE website. There is also a great book called "Positive Results" by Dr Ora Gordon that was very informative and helpful to me.
You're an actress, business owner and independent consultant for Rodan & Fields. How do you juggle it all?
Love, passion and caffeine. I love acting, I'm passionate about skincare because having good skin can really boost your self-esteem and I love helping other people pursue their dreams. When what you do is something you love and are passionate about, it doesn't feel like work. You find the time. A cup of coffee is all I need. And maybe a glass of wine occasionally!
What are your future plans/goals?
- Career wise - I'll never retire from acting. I'd love to act in New York and London too. I'll never retire from helping others and offering my advice. I'll probably still be telling people about the eye cream I'm using when I'm 80.
- Health wise - I'll have to take out my ovaries before I'm 40. I have a 57% chance of getting ovarian cancer and I'm not a fan of those odds. It's an outpatient surgery, not that big of a deal. You do go into early menopause, but hey! No periods!
- Life wise - I want to travel. It's my dream to go to London and Paris. I want to spend as much time with family and friends as possible. I'd like to move to a house that's a little more conducive to having parties and guests over, because I love to host.
- Love wise - My husband and I are a team. We know we will be making each other laugh and supporting each other's dreams for the rest of our lives. But date nights and weekends away are still important! I want to always be working on our relationship as it grows and changes.
Name one female that has inspired you.
I'm sure most people say their mothers, but my mother was particularly inspiring. After she passed, so many people came out of the woodwork to tell me how she had helped them out of a difficult situation in their lives. I thought it was just me! She never bragged about helping and supporting people, she just did it. She gave so much of herself to others. She was a business owner, mother of two and wife who always had dinner on the table, yet she found time to volunteer and always made time for friends and family. She was fun, funny, smart, beautiful, strong and courageous. Everyone loved her.
What advice would you girls today?
- The best things that ever happened to me in school were when I took a deep breath and took a risk. Nothing ever comes from NOT trying out, NOT introducing yourself to that person, NOT raising your hand to volunteer, NOT sticking up for someone, NOT going to the game or dance or club meeting, NOT getting involved. If you're nervous, just take a deep breath.
- Nurture your female friendships. It's fun to be "one of the guys," but as I've gotten older, it's my female friends who have gotten me through the hard times.
- If you get invited to someone's wedding, go. Especially if it's a family member or close friend. There will be a few years in your 20s where it will seem like you have one to go to every weekend. Suck it up. Take the time out of work, put the flight on your credit card and GO. There are two weddings I didn't go to because of money, and to this day, I regret it.
- Wash your face before you go to bed. No, seriously.
- Listen to music that makes you happy, even if someone else thinks it's cheesy.
- If there's a dance floor, grab someone and dance, even if no one else is dancing.
- No matter how you're feeling inside, smiling will usually help you feel better.