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Julie Heilig

Julie Heilig

Mother with a family history of breast cancer

Midland, Michigan

"Since undergoing genetic testing and having the surgeries, I haven't even worried about breast cancer. It's a huge relief."

Simple Blood Test Empowered Her to Take Charge of Her Health

By undergoing genetic testing at MidMichigan Medical Center - Midland, Julie Heilig was able to be proactive and put her family history of cancer behind her.

Heilig’s paternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45, passing away in her early 50s.  Then one of Heilig’s three sisters was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer at age 36.  Heilig – a supervisor in health information management at MidMichigan – attended a presentation on genetic testing by MidMichigan’s Breast Health Coordinator.  There, she learned that some genes can cause a higher risk for certain cancers, including breast, ovarian, uterine and colon.  Through genetic testing, individuals from high-risk families can now determine if they have inherited a gene that increases their risk of developing a hereditary cancer.

“I suspected we had the genetic disorder,” said Heilig, “and when another of my sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew for sure that something was wrong.”

Heilig’s sister was the first family member to undergo genetic testing.

“The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are responsible for fighting off cell growth, so if those genes are mutated, your defenses are lowered.  You don’t have the ability to fight off cancer cells,” said Heilig.  “If my sister tested positive, the doctors wanted to be as aggressive as they could, because her chances of recurrence would be really high if she only had a lumpectomy.”

Although the blood test required for genetic testing is expensive, most insurance companies will cover the test if it is needed to make a medical decision.  If the family member who has been diagnosed with cancer gets tested first, and the mutated gene is found, the cost of testing is lower for other family members.

When Heilig’s sister tested positive for the BRCA2 gene, Heilig, along with her father, brother and a third sister, decided on genetic counseling and testing at MidMichigan.

MidMichigan’s program is the most advanced in the region, providing the highest level of genetic counseling available.  For Heilig, the first step was a risk assessment session at MidMichigan’s Breast Health Center.  This review of Heilig’s family history and personal risk factors showed that Heilig was a good candidate for genetic testing. The next step - undergoing a simple blood test - took about two weeks to process.

Heilig, her father and sister all tested positive for the BRCA2 gene.  Heilig’s father had inherited the gene from his mother and passed it down to his four daughters.  For the next generation – Heilig’s two daughters, five nieces and two nephews – genetic testing is now recommended before age 25. 

“If the results are positive, it’s not a guarantee that you will get cancer.  It just means that you’re at a high risk,” said Heilig.  “The good thing is, it lets you be proactive.  It puts you in charge of your health.”

Based on her test results and several previous scares with suspicious breast lumps, Heilig chose the most aggressive option presented by her doctors: prophylactic oophorectomies (removal of the ovaries) and mastectomies (removal of the breasts), followed by breast reconstruction, along with a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus).  Her surgeries were performed at MidMichigan by general and breast surgeon Ellsworth Ludwig, M.D., board-certified plastic surgeon Steven Morris, M.D. and obstetrician/gynecologist Lydia Watson, M.D.

“I had a very strong gut feeling that I was next in line.  I wanted to be proactive and get it before it got me,” said Heilig.  “Now I’ve decreased my chances of getting breast cancer by about 99 percent.  Since having the surgeries, I haven’t even worried about breast cancer.  It’s a huge, huge relief.”

Through referrals from MidMichigan’s Breast Health Center, Heilig now shares her experiences with other women who are considering prophylactic mastectomies.  “It’s spiritually rewarding to support other women, to answer their questions, and to give them hope and reassurance,” said Heilig.

Julie Heilig’s story is just one example of MidMichigan’s advanced technology and physician expertise.  If you have a family history of cancer, ask your doctor for a referral to MidMichigan’s genetic counseling and testing program.

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