After her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, healthcare professional Velvet Giddens sought genetic testing for the breast cancer gene mutation known as BRCA. When the test came back positive, indicating a high risk of developing cancer herself, she underwent a preventive mastectomy, or surgical removal of both breasts.

Close up of Velvet Gidens
Velvet Giddens

“It’s a double-edged sword when you become the patient but you’re also a nurse. Your perspective quickly changes,” Giddens says.

Caring for Others First

Giddens is a registered nurse who manages behavioral health care coordination services for
Peninsula Outpatient, a division of Parkwest Medical Center. Previously, Giddens worked for 20 years in critical care and oncology, caring for many breast cancer patients.

She says, “I’ve always loved taking care of people and it’s the reason I chose the nursing
profession. Being the patient increases your awareness of what it feels like to actually be
the one lying on a stretcher and putting your life in someone else’s hands.”

Family History

When her mother received a breast cancer diagnosis, Giddens and her sisters were presented with the option of genetic testing. Knowing that her grandmother had passed away as a result of breast cancer, she jumped at the opportunity. The test revealed she was BRCA positive, indicating a significant risk of breast cancer.

Velvet with her family
The journey of breast cancer diagnoses and treatments was shared by all the women in Velvet Giddens’ family. Top row from left: her cousin, Kelly Davis; sister, Gidget Deal; and mother, Katie Giddens. Bottom row from left, her cousin, Hamilton Fields; Velvet Giddens, and her sister, Angie Roberts.

A positive test result means there is a mutation in one of the breast cancer genes, BRCA1
or BRCA2. Although the BRCA genes are the most common cause of gene-related breast and ovarian cancers, a positive result doesn’t mean a person is certain to develop cancer. The mutated gene can come from either parent.

About Genetic Testing

Genetic testing can identify mutations in genes that substantially increase the risk of breast or other cancers. The test itself can be saliva or blood, which is sent to a highly reputable genetic testing lab that provides a detailed report. The results take about two weeks.

William C. Gibson, MD, FACS, is a general surgeon specializing in breast surgery at Parkwest Medical Center. He has noticed the practice of genetic testing has gained momentum over the past few years. “A lot of times, the genetic mutation is not discovered until after someone receives a cancer diagnosis. This is why we suggest family members of someone diagnosed with a genetic abnormality also seek genetic counseling and testing,” he says. Good candidates for any type of genetic testing (not just breast cancer) are typically young people with a family history of the disease or those with an aggressive cancer diagnosis.

Genetic counseling was a positive experience for Giddens, who says it provoked in-depth
conversations with her doctors. “It was a lot of material to understand and process, but helped
me make an informed decision about my health care.”

At Parkwest

In 2019 Giddens was admitted to Parkwest and underwent a bilateral, nipple-sparing,
prophylactic mastectomy with immediate single-stage reconstruction. Dr. Gibson per-
formed the mastectomy, in which he removed all visible evidence of breast tissue while leaving the healthy  skin remaining. Giddens received implants in the same surgery by Timothy Wilson, MD. The procedure took a total of about five hours, and she went home the same day.

Dr. Gibson
William C. Gibson, MD, FACS

Giddens says, “I wanted to get it done as soon as possible so I could assist my mother and
sisters with their decisions.” The other two women followed Giddens with similar procedures.

A Burden Lifted

“I knew I had an increased risk of developing cancer. I knew this was right for me, and
emotionally, it took a lot off my mind,” Giddens reflects. “Some people may think it’s a radical decision but I didn’t think twice about it. We had an extensive family history of breast cancer, so the decision for me was easy.”

We Are Blessed

“We are so blessed to have Parkwest right here in Knoxville,” Giddens expresses. “Everyone treated us with such respect, from registration, to pre and post-op, and the surgery team in between. My mother, sisters, and I could not be more pleased with the care we received from the wonderful staff at Parkwest.”

Giddens encourages others to be their own healthcare advocate and ask questions of their
physicians to better understand treatment options.

“A mammogram can save your life. Take care of your body and get your screenings, because so much can be prevented. It’s like car maintenance — you have to change the oil and rotate
the tires every now and then.”

Is Genetic Testing Right for Me?

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer death rates decreased steadily from 1989 to 2015 because of improved treatments and early detection by mammography. In 2015, relative survival rates for women diagnosed with breast cancer were 91 percent at five years after diagnosis, 86 percent after 10 years, and 80 percent after 15 years.

But what is involved in screening? Parkwest Comprehensive Breast Center offers high quality services, an outstanding staff and the latest in screening technology. If an abnormality is detected, the Breast Center follows a woman through all her testing and in some cases, treatment.

How Does Breast Cancer Screening Work?

A mammogram is a specialized medical imaging tool that uses a low-dose X-ray system to see inside the breast. It’s a quick and easy test that can save your life.

In addition to imaging, Parkwest Breast Center provides a Life- time Breast Cancer Risk Assessment at the time of a mammogram. From that assessment, practitioners may recommend that certain patients who may be at a high risk of developing cancer seek genetic counseling and testing, especially if they have a family history of cancer. Patients can begin the genetic counseling process that day while at the Breast Center if they choose.

What is Genetic Counseling?

William C. Gibson, MD, FACS, general surgeon at Parkwest Medical Center, says, “I spend time counseling and discussing the risk of developing breast cancer with those who may have a high risk due to a genetic mutation.”

Who Should Seek Genetic Testing?

Dr. Gibson advises, “A lot of times, the genetic mutation is not discovered until after someone receives a cancer diagnosis. This is why we recommend that family members of anyone diagnosed with a genetic abnormality also seek genetic counseling and testing.”

When is Surgery Recommended?

A prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy, or removal of one or both breasts, is a surgery women may undergo when they test positive for the BRCA gene. Dr. Gibson says, “For some, the decision to pursue preventive surgery is right for them. My role as a counselor is to explain the risk and statistics of malignancy. We also follow young women whose mothers have been diagnosed with breast cancer and present genetic testing as an option.”

Dr. Gibson says, “Whether or not you have family history and genetic mutation, be diligent
with annual mammograms. These screenings detect cancer early, and early detection leads to good outcomes and excellent long-term survival.”