Mum has miracle baby despite fears breast cancer at 31 would affect fertility

Gemma Isaacs always knew she was at risk of getting breast cancer.

Her dad and many people on his side of the family had the BRCA1 gene mutation, which means a high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

But when a tumour was picked up by chance when she was just 31, it still came as a shock.

Now, two years on from her diagnosis, Gemma has achieved a huge amount.

She completed chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free, had a double mastectomy followed by radiotherapy, ran a half marathon just a few months later and co-founded BRCA Sisters – a support group helping young people affected by genetic cancers.

And Gemma, now 33, feels like her life has come full circle with the birth of her miracle second baby, despite worries that treatment had caused an early menopause.

Gemma, husband Daryll, and two-year-old daughter Ella welcomed Jack Alfie Issacs on 21 August.

Gemma tells ‘I had a very easy pregnancy which I would say was marred only by a fear of something bad happening again from my past experiences.

‘After dealing with chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, not much feels difficult anymore! For me, feeling “normal” feels very abnormal, but it is nice to be known as Gemma who just had a baby rather than Gemma who had or has cancer.

‘I am not sure I will ever shake the feeling of waiting for something to go wrong, particularly as now things feel so positive but I am trying to enjoy every moment. 

‘Being a family of four is something, after being diagnosed, I never believed would happen and I am not sure the reality has actually set in.

‘I challenge myself every day to enjoy the moment and not live in the past of the future but celebrate the present because that is all I really know for now. To have two healthy children is amazing and I couldn’t wish for anything more.’

Before her eventual diagnosis, Gemma had spent years debating whether to have the test to find out if she also had the gene mutation, which would put her at high risk of developing cancer.

She tells ‘It’s not just it’s not as simple a decision as just to have a test or not. If you have the test and it’s positive, then there’s a decision to be made about whether to have surgery and that’s quite impactful.

‘I had kind of planned in my head that I was going to have a family and once I finished having children, I would have my test because I thought then I would be happy to go ahead and have surgery. That was my mindset.’

Initially, Gemma was on a high risk screening programme, but when her daughter Ella was born, Gemma felt she wanted to find out to plan for the future.

She adds: ‘I was 30 when my daughter was born and that is when I started having MRI scans because I was high risk. My first MRI came back with something possibly there and while it turned out to be nothing, it was so stressful.

‘I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore and just wanted to find out about the gene mutation. Having a baby changed my perspective.’

Gemma went for the test in August 2018 and was told it could be a month before she got her results.

But when the results where delayed she went to see her doctor to chat about what was happening and asked her doctor for a quick breast exam while she was there.

He didn’t find a lump – but a slightly swollen lymph node indicated something could be wrong and ordered a scan and biopsy.

A few days later, on 17 September – the same week as her daughter’s first birthday – she was told she had a small mass in her right breast.

She says: ‘I was shocked. I had always thought it would happen to me some day but just not then. I hadn’t noticed any changes in my boobs and I’d just happened to ask about an exam because I was in the doctors office anyway.’

Gemma was told she would need chemotherapy and radiotherapy was worried that the treatment would mean she wouldn’t be able to have any more children.

She was able to harvest eggs and embryos before starting treatment but wasn’t sure what impact it would have on her body.

The day after the procedure, Gemma started six months of chemotherapy.

Although the treatment was hard and caused her to lose her hair, Gemma wanted to stay positive and keep life as normal as possible.

She says: ‘People would say things like “I don’t know how you cope” but you just have to.

‘Throughout my cancer journey, exercise was really important to me. I would go to the gym and run as much as I was able to. Before cancer, I ate well and trained. Obivously it doesn’t matter who you are – cancer can affect you, but I wanted to keep that up and I feel it really helped my recovery.’

During her treatment, Gemma was told that she definitely did have the BRCA1 gene mutation and she decided to have a double mastectomy to lower the chances of developing breast cancer again from 87% to 5%, which was scheduled for after she finished chemotherapy.

Gemma posted about her story online and found other women with the BRCA gene and soon started to organise casual meetups for people in a similar situation to come together and talk.

After her surgery in April 2019, she started radiotherapy and at the same time, she began training to raise money for the BRCA sisters. Together with four other women, she ran the Royal Parks Half Marathon, raising over £7,000.

Before coronavirus, they were organising monthly meet ups in pubs or cafes for people affected by BRCA and other genetic cancers.

Gemma finally finished cancer treatment on 19 July 2019, but it continued to have an impact on her health.

She says: ‘The hardest thing had always been when they told me that it could affect fertility because my daughter had just turned one and we’d always planned to have more kids.

‘Everything else I saw as short term – my hair would grow back, treatment would end – but I felt like something had been stolen from me when it came to having another child.

After finishing treatment, she went to see a fertility doctor who told her that it looked like her ovaries had stopped working and her hormone levels were low. They started talking about hormone replacement therapy to prevent things like osteoporosis.

Gemma wanted to try all she could to help her body heal and she decided to try a hormone-free vegan diet, with the support of her team.

Two months later, her cycle returned, although still very irregularly.

In November she returned to the fertility doctor again who said that her ovary function had improved but not enough for her to fall pregnant.

But Gemma continued with her diet and by the end of the year, she had fallen pregnant with Jack.

Now a happy mum-of-two, Gemma says: ‘I feel like this is the happy ending for me and I can go on and help other people.

‘I want to support others going through BRCA diagnosis or breast cancer but I also want to do more to show the benefits of movement and exercise for those going through cancer.

‘I feel like everything I’ve learned has given me things to build on.’

You can follow Gemma on Instagram @strongnotskinny.

Proud Of What We’re Made Of

This article is part of our weekly series, Proud Of What We’re Made Of, celebrating inspirational women with powerful stories.

Each Wednesday we’ll share the story of a woman who’s overcome challenges to achieve something amazing. You can read every Proud Of What We’re Made Of article here.

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