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'Having the courage to take action'

My dad held my hand, reassuring me that everything would be all right as they wheeled me into surgery. It was an all-too-familiar experience for him.

He had stood by my mother's side as she valiantly endured a dozen surgeries spanning more than 10 years. On Dec. 31, 1984, a month after my mother's death, I was having my first of many breast biopsies.

We celebrated the new year with the news that my lump was benign. I was a healthy 21-year-old who was not going to walk down the road that my mom, her two sisters and my grandmother had traveled. All had breast cancer; all had died.

A disease that knows no boundaries, breast cancer strikes women from all backgrounds and races - the rich and the poor, the old and the young. In my family, it struck the young.

As awareness of breast cancer has improved over the years, so has the chance of survival. Due to the dedication of doctors, politicians and those who raise money for research through breast cancer walks, attending cancer balls and purchasing "pink" products, great progress has been made in the fight against breast cancer.

More than a decade ago, a lifesaving blood test was created to identify an alteration in a particular gene (BRCA1 or 2), which if inherited predicts up to an 85 percent chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Despite my family history and the strong urging of doctors, I opted to gamble with my health, choosing not to have the test.

I am extremely squeamish about medical procedures and cringed at the thought of having my blood drawn, let alone the recommended procedures if I tested positive for the gene - bilateral mastectomy and hysterectomy.

I had seen my mother's chest grossly disfigured in the 1970s, and later the cancer metastasized to her bones and liver. She fought courageously as she lay bedridden for the final three years of her life. Out of fear, I didn't want to know if I had inherited the BRCA gene, which is all too accurate in predicting one's destiny.

I was, however, vigilant about having mammograms, sonograms and MRIs. Despite several more biopsies, each followed by the all-too-long waiting period for test results, I chose to focus on the 15 percent chance that I would not develop cancer.

Then something changed. My dear friend and fellow Gwinnettian Meredith Mason was succumbing to breast cancer at age 39. I had watched and prayed with her for seven years. As the end grew closer, I asked what I could do to comfort her. She pleaded with me one last time to be tested for the BRCA gene. I tested positive for BRCA 2 in March 2006. That was followed by another frightening biopsy in December 2007.

So why, 24 years after my first invasive biopsy and one year after testing positive for the BRCA gene, did I finally make the dramatic decision to have my breasts and ovaries removed? The reason is simple.

I want to spend every possible moment with my husband, Mark, and our two precious sons, Ryan and Colin. They are the most important gifts I could ever receive. I want to watch my sons grow, helping to shape them into honorable men and responsible citizens. I want to be alive to cheer their successes and mend their hearts. I want to watch them graduate from high school and college, get married and have babies - all the things my mom was not able to share with me.

Supported by my husband, who has given me incredible strength, my family (especially my dad), my wonderful friends and co-workers, I made the journey. Having the courage to take action was a true blessing. The surgeons discovered precancerous tissue (atypical hyperplasia) in both breasts. I clearly made the right decision to have these life-changing, and potentially life-saving, operations.

I cannot help but think, had Meredith and my mom and their doctors been armed with the resources that are available today, they might have acted sooner and both would be alive today. We have the information we need to act.

If you have not had your annual mammogram (statistics say that 50 percent of you have not) please take this very moment to call your doctor and schedule an appointment. If you haven't done your self-exam this month, put down the newspaper and do it now. Every day that you have with your loved ones is a great day. Choose to take action so that you can live your life to the fullest.

Laura Grams is the director of Cisco System's Learning and Development Solutions Group. She and her team are responsible for developing both leadership and technical capabilities for Cisco's 27,000 engineers.

Laura and her family live in Lawrenceville. She will be a featured speaker at the American Cancer Society's 35th annual Crusader's Ball on Nov. 14. For more info, call 770-814-0123 or go to www.crusadersball.org.