Anne Parker’s life changed on Sept. 17, 1965, the day her mother died after losing a 14-year battle with cancer.
Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with Parker; she went through treatment after giving birth.
“From there, I always wondered what this cancer was and why my mom was so sick,” said Parker, 65, who at the time was 14. “Then I had a front-row seat, when my sister developed breast cancer and went through her trauma with treatment.”
Twelve years later, her sister Joan died from breast cancer.
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At 29, Parker was showering and felt a lump — smaller than a pea — on her breast during a self-examination. After doctors’ visits and ultrasounds, she learned that she, too, had breast cancer. In 1981, she had a double mastectomy.
“With breast cancer, they felt that they had got it all, and there was no follow-up back then,” said Parker, who eight years later at age 37 was diagnosed wtih Stage 3 ovarian cancer. “The ovarian cancer really threw me for a loop, because I was having a lot of symptoms. So I kept going back to the doctor, who thought I was a bit of a hypochondriac.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, was researching the genetic roots of breast cancer and discovered the gene that leads to many breast and ovarian cancers: BRCA1. In 1994, Parker was one of the first women in Canada to be tested for the BRCA1 gene mutation; she tested positive.
In 2005, Parker’s cancer came back for a third time with a tumor located behind her liver. She was 54. Doctors removed the tumor and part of her liver, which is an organ that can regenerate.
In 2013, a film about her and and King, called Decoding Annie Parker, was released. Parker subsequently wrote about her journey in the book Annie Parker Decoded.
Parker recently spoke at the Day of Caring for Breast Cancer Awareness event at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami.
Jessica Macks, 46, was one of those attending.
“I have family history [of cancer] so I opted to go through the BRCA, I tested positive, and I decided to go for it,” Macks said. “I had a double mastectomy and double hysterectomy.”
Parker could relate.
“Everybody has a story. Everybody here at this event and all the events that I speak at has a story so I’m just one voice,” Parker said.