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British Woman Who Has inherited Breast Cancer Wants to Spread Awareness

"The beast" has felled her mother, her older sister, five of her aunts, one great, great aunt and six of her cousins . Another cousin in the United States has just found out that "the beast" has attacked her too.

"I feel like I'm standing in the middle of the M25 waiting for a lorry to hit me," says Shirley McQueen, 44, who runs an upmarket clothes shop in Chelsea in England.

"The beast" is a particularly virulent form of breast cancer: " Every woman who has died in my family has died of breast cancer," she says.

"The women in my family haven't lived long enough to see their grandchildren. When my older sister was diagnosed, her daughter was pregnant and she said she was going to hang on to see the baby, but she didn't manage it. If I ask to be here to see my grandchildren, am I asking too much?"

McQueen grew up in Grenada and barely knew her mother, who divided her time between the Caribbean island and her job as a nurse at the Jewish Hospital in London's Mile End.

When she was five her mother arrived home from London, very sick. She was carried out of the car and up to bed, where she remained until she died of breast cancer, 14 days later. Treatment she had received in London had failed to halt the rampage of the disease.

"Death was accepted far more in the Caribbean than it is here. I was told that my mother had come home from England and that she was dying," she says matter-of-factly.

McQueen's childhood was punctuated by the deaths of other female relatives and she has a horror of her two children Antonio, 20, and Peaches, 17, experiencing the same loss.

One aunt was given radiation treatment, but she received too large a dose and her breast was burnt by it; another had a huge hole in her breast which relatives filled with bread, suggesting that maybe the tumour would eat that instead of her body.

Her father, who she says was a good man , brought her and her siblings up after her mother died, but her childhood memories are of fear, pain and suffering.

"I was told by a relative that because I was my mother's last child and had sucked milk from her breasts, that I would catch the cancer from her milk."

"I didn't miss my mother until I had my own children. Then I realised that you can't have a nice childhood without a mother caring for you. All my friends' mothers plaited their hair but I had to try to plait my own because there was no one to do it for me. I never had a woman in my childhood telling me that she loved me and that I was beautiful, like I tell my daughter."

McQueen has not undergone genetic testing because the NHS requires a living relative with breast cancer to be tested at the same time to confirm the problem gene. Most of her female relatives who contracted the cancer are dead, although she is considering asking her newly diagnosed cousin in the US if she is prepared to undergo testing.

She believes it was her grandfather who, ironically, died of old age at 110, who passed the gene on. He had children with several different women and the majority of his female offspring developed breast cancer.

Martin Ledwick, a cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK, says that cancers where mutations of the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 play a role are around five per cent of the 41,000 cases diagnosed each year.

"We've identified a couple of genes which we know are implicated in some breast cancers but it's clear that there are others which haven't yet been identified. If you have a large number of first-degree relatives with breast cancer, you don't really need to do a gene test. Women in this category are offered regular screening and some opt to have a bilateral mastectomy."

He says that women with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer are being picked up by health services much more often than they used to be. Clinical trials of the drug Tamoxifen are underway to see if that can play a role in preventing women like Shirley from developing cancer.

Most of the women in her family developed cancer by the age of 45 and were dead by the age of 50.

She is planning to go in a double mastectomy before the beast can fell her.

"I'm tired of preparing for death," she says. She is due to have surgery to remove her breasts and a reconstruction in the next few months.

She's been told that this move will dramatically reverse the odds for her - without the surgery there is a 90 per cent chance she will develop breast cancer; with it, there is a 90-per-cent chance she won't.

"My family have tried to dissuade me. They think that illness comes directly from God and that you shouldn't play around with God's work," she says.

But McQueen firmly believes that more can be done to reverse the horrible fate of women like herself, and that awareness needs to be raised about breast cancer, particularly in the black community. Regular breast checks, screening and, in cases like hers, preventative mastectomies should all be considered, she says.

A study by Breast Cancer Care found that out of 1,633 women surveyed, 43 per cent of women from ethnic minorities didn't check their breasts compared with 11 per cent of the rest. She is particularly concerned to make younger women more proactive about protecting themselves from breast cancer because she knows how devastating it is for children to grow up without a mother.

While the prospect of six hours on the operating table fills McQueen with trepidation, she is not traumatised by the prospect of losing her breasts.

"In Europe white women look at breasts as sexual things but black women look at them more as something maternal, as a comforter for a child. For us the bottom is more sexual. As far as I'm concerned m y breasts have done their work and I have no use for them any more."

McQueen says that she is undergoing her surgery for the sake of her children. "I'm not frightened of dying but I am frightened of leaving my children. I'm always thinking about dying and I want that to stop. Once I've had the surgery I'll be able to sleep again. All I want is to have my life."


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