How My Mother's Breast Cancer Changed Me

Miss America contestant Allyn Rose lost her mom to breast cancer as a teen. Today, she's made a controversial decision that she hopes will help her avoid the same fate.

Gina Roberts-Grey
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At January's Miss America pageant, Allyn Rose, Miss District of Columbia, showed off her figure in a bikini and evening gown and raced around the stage in roller skates. Now, the healthy 24-year-old model and paralegal is getting ready to have a double mastectomy—a procedure few young women could imagine having. "[The thought of] losing my breasts isn't nearly as scary as the thought of losing my life," she says.

Allyn wasn't yet born when her mom, Judy, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27. Judy had a mastectomy, then married and had Allyn and her younger brother. Judy's cancer returned in her remaining breast two decades later, and she succumbed to the disease at 48, when Allyn was just 16. "She missed so much in my life," says Allyn.

Judy left her children letters that touched Allyn deeply—and led to an important decision. "In her last letter she said, Ally, you're my star and I'm so sorry to leave you. I know you'll need me for many years," says Allyn. "That line resonates with me because as I've gotten older, I can put myself in her position and imagine her fear of not wanting to leave the job of raising her kids unfinished.

My mother had to put everything she wanted to tell her kids about learning to drive and picking a college or a mate in a few letters, and I don't want to be in that position. I don't want my kids to have to find that letter some day."

A brave choice

Allyn was tested for both breast cancer genes, but like her mom she's not a carrier. She is, however, a carrier of the genetic mutation that causes Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, a condition in which patients bruise and bleed easily and have an increased risk of infection and some cancers. Judy and several other women in Allyn's family were also carriers. Although the syndrome hasn't proven to be linked with breast cancer, it can't be ruled out. "My mom's oncologists said there probably is a link," says Allyn, whose grandmother and great aunt also died from breast cancer. "Decreasing my risk as much as possible makes sense for me."

Now that she's just three years younger than her mom was when she was diagnosed, Allyn realizes that being alive is more important than having a perfect body. "My mom would have given up every part of her body to be here for me, to watch me in the pageant," she has said. "If there's something I can do to be proactive, [I'll do it]. It might hurt my body and it might hurt my physical beauty, but I'm going to be alive."

Allyn is hardly alone in her choice: The number of women opting for preventive mastectomies increased tenfold between 1998 and 2007, since genetic testing and reconstructive surgery options have improved, according to a study published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology.

April 2013