Facing the odds: Mother, daughter have preventive surgery to reduce cancer risk
If you go
What: "Shoot for Sam" benefit for Samantha Meyer
When: 6 to 11 p.m. May 10; social and silent auction begins at 6 with music by Boss DJ; Tune in Tokyo takes the stage at 8.
Where: Crystal Ballroom, Ramada Plaza & Suites, Fargo
Tickets: $10 before the event; $15 at the door. Tickets are available online or at Three Rivers Decorating in Wahpeton, N.D., Image Quest Salon in Breckenridge, Minn., or Pout Baby Boutique in Fargo.
Online: www.shootforsam.com or www.facebook.com/shootforsam
Two years ago at age 23, Samantha Meyer learned that she was five times more likely than other women to get breast cancer at some point in her lifetime.
The Fargo-based photographer, now 25, tested positive for the BRCA1 gene, as did her mother and 17 other family members.
About 60 percent of women who carry the gene mutation will develop breast cancer, and about 40 percent will develop ovarian cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Those aren't odds many 23-year-olds find themselves facing.
Samantha, who lives in Fargo with her boyfriend, his two daughters, and their four dogs, was at home when she got the news.
"I was literally watching my phone, waiting for it to ring," she says.
At the time, Samantha didn't know much about BRCA1, except that it meant she had a "very high-risk and scary path" ahead of her.
She turned to her mom, Beth, for information and support.
'I WANT YOU HERE'
Beth's family has an extensive history of cancer.
Three of her aunts died of breast, ovarian and brain cancer before they turned 45. "I've outlived them all," Beth says.
She and her daughter struggled with whether to be screened for the mutation, but they both decided they'd rather know.
The 50-year-old Breckenridge, Minn., woman received her positive test result two days after Christmas 2008. "There was no doubt in my mind that I would be diagnosed," she says.
Once armed with the information, Beth asked her husband, Mark, whether she should have preventive surgery to decrease her risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
He said: "It's pretty much a no-brainer. I want you here."
Three weeks later, Beth had her breast tissue and ovaries removed. She remembers questioning her decision before walking into the hospital for her early-morning surgery.
"Once we got in, that was it. You just don't look back," she says.
Beth felt relieved when she woke up from surgery.
On March 13, 2012, her daughter did, too.
Samantha was worried she'd have to convince her doctors to give her the OK because of her young age, but her surgeon told her she was a perfect candidate.
"Three days later, we scheduled my surgery," Samantha says.
Samantha didn't think she'd have to go through such a physically altering surgery at age 25, but she knew she wanted to live her life without fear.
Before her surgery, Samantha's friends asked her whether she was scared to have her breast tissue and underarm lymph nodes removed.
"My answer is simply no. I am not scared because what I am doing is going to save my life," she wrote in a blog post titled "Better Safe Than Sorry" four days before her mastectomy.
She says it could have been 30 years before she got cancer - if she got cancer - but she didn't want to spend 30 years worrying about it.
"I don't have cancer - I'm preventing myself from having cancer," Samantha says. "Let's have a party; this is not something to be sad about."
Beth had reconstructive surgery about six months after her mastectomy, and Samantha plans to have hers done at the end of the summer.
Beth says although there's no guarantee that she or her daughter won't get another type of cancer, they've done everything they can to prevent two types.
"I feel like we're luckier than most because we've gotten to look into the crystal ball. Not many people get to do that," Beth says.
'I'M SO SORRY'
Between her gene screening and double mastectomy, Samantha lost two pregnancies, her uterus and nearly her life.
In 2010, her first pregnancy ended after five months due to complications. The footprints of the baby girl she lost are tattooed on her neck.
Then last summer, Samantha was airlifted to Mayo Clinic for a dangerous cervical pregnancy.
After three and a half weeks, three MRIs and two rounds of a chemotherapy drug, Samantha's medical team decided surgery was the only option.
When she began to hemorrhage (she lost 7 units of blood), they were forced to perform an emergency hysterectomy to save her life.
"That wasn't the original plan. That was always Plan D ... if A, B and C didn't work," she says.
Samantha remembers the surgeon telling her when she woke up afterward, "Samantha, I'm so sorry, I had to take your uterus."
At the time, she felt numb to the news, but it set in later. "It would have been easier if I would never have gotten pregnant before that," she says.
Though she's considering freezing her eggs and using a surrogate mother, Samantha plans to have her ovaries removed by the end of the year. "I think that will be the hard part," she says.
Samantha's friend Meg Spielman Peldo, who shares a studio space with her in downtown Fargo, calls her attitude amazing.
"After everything she's been through, she's grateful to be alive," says Spielman Peldo, who's among a large group of Samantha's friends leading a fundraiser to help her with her medical bills.
Beth admires her daughter's positive outlook and says they've grown closer through their shared experience.
"She said, 'I choose not to concentrate on what I've lost, but what I still have.' I don't know if I at her age could say that," Beth says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590
How to help
• You can mail a check payable to "Samantha Meyer Benefit" to Bremer Bank, 1444 45th St. SW, Fargo, ND 58104 or donate online. Dakota Medical Foundation's Lend A Hand program will match donations up to $5,000.
• Photographers are being asked to hold sessions or mini sessions May 5-10 and donate their proceeds. If you're interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org .
• Gray unisex "Shoot for Sam" T-shirts are available online for $12-$14, and 100 percent of the proceeds will go toward Samantha's medical bills.