Denise DelGrosso Gilliland
Pink Power Founder & President
Breast Cancer Survivor
My story begins in 1995. My maternal grandmother was in the hospital dying of cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983, was in remission for 12 years, and unfortunately had a reoccurrence that metastasized to her lungs. I was pregnant with our third child, but I did not know if I was having a boy or a girl. I was already blessed with twin boys, and I was anxious to see what baby number three was!
My grandmother knew I was pregnant. A few days before she passed away, she touched my stomach, looked up at me and whispered, "It's a girl." Those were the last words she spoke to me. A few months later, I learned I was going to be blessed with a girl! It was at that moment I realized I needed to be more proactive about my breast health. I promised I would teach my daughter when she grew up how to do self-exams and encourage her to share this information with her girlfriends. It was then, at age 30, I began scheduling yearly mammograms.
Five years after my grandmother passed away, my father's sister Mary Ann was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three years later in 2003, my Aunt Linda was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. In 2004, my father was in the shower and discovered a lump on his breast. A biopsy later revealed, he too had breast cancer.
Because he was a man and was the third sibling in his family to be diagnosed, my father's doctor encouraged him to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation. Dad tested positive for BRCA 2, and my Aunt Mary Ann and Aunt Linda were positive as well. This led to a very proactive movement in our family to get as many people tested as possible for the gene mutation.
When both of my sisters tested negative, I was so hopeful my news would be the same, but that was not the case. I tested positive for the BRCA 2 gene mutation in March of 2005. Carrying the BRCA 2 gene mutation meant that at age 40, I had a 50% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and at age 70, I have an 86% chance of being diagnosed. I also have an increased risk for ovarian cancer, melanoma, and pancreatic cancer. Men have an increased risk for breast, pancreatic, prostate cancer, and melanoma.
Because I had an increased risk for ovarian cancer, I made the decision to have a hysterectomy with my ovaries removed. I also decided to continue my yearly mammograms, with the additional screening of a yearly MRI scheduled six months after my mammogram. Every year I received good news - no cancer! Then in 2009, my MRI revealed something new that was not there before. My doctor ordered a biopsy, and the results came back negative. Most doctors would have followed up in six months or a year, but my doctor was aware of the gene mutation stats, so she ordered an MRI biopsy. After 30 minutes of an MRI scan, my radiologist didn't feel the need to collect more tissue, so he sent me home.
The next morning the radiologist called to inform me that after reading about the increased risk of cancer for BRCA 2 carriers, he advised me to take the next step. My breast surgeon performed a needle localization the next morning, then three days later I received the phone call with news no one ever wants to hear. "You have cancer!"
After going through a range of emotions from shock and sadness, to fear and anger, I stepped into warrior mode, rallied the troops, and prayed for wisdom, strength, and courage. My husband was my rock, and my children were my reason!
I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy because the chance of reoccurrence in the second breast is 60% for BRCA 2 gene mutation carriers. My father Fred was diagnosed back in 2004, and was diagnosed in the second breast in 2016, one of many reasons I will never regret the decision to have both breasts removed. Knowledge is power, and knowing our genetic history is vital. I was so fortunate I did not need to have chemo or radiation, and I'm in awe of the strength so many of my family members and friends possess to get through their treatment. I did have 10 months of tissue expansion for my saline implants, then had my final surgery for my permanent implants. I thank God every day for the beautiful gift of life.
Since my breast cancer journey began, I have always tried to find ways to give back to the cause. I have been a speaker at various breast cancer functions, participate in walks, attend breast cancer events, and remind friends and family to make an appointment for their yearly mammograms. One week after my diagnosis in September of 2009, my friend Beth and I gathered to pray with two other friends, and Tuesdays With Mary prayer group was born. We have been praying every Tuesday ever since! In 2013 I launched Cook for A Cause, where I organized cooking classes to raise money for local breast cancer patients. The first class was in my home presented by my dear friend Hamir, who achieved his dream of opening his own restaurant five years later. Hamir always pays tribute to his roots of charitable giving and helping people.
My greatest accomplishment since my diagnosis has been the creation of Pink Power. Our mission is to bring women together for an annual event to raise money and awareness for breast cancer causes. We raised $228,000 since our first event in 2017, and it’s going to get bigger and better each year. I feel so blessed to be the leader of an organization that can truly make a difference in our community and beyond.
I encourage all the survivors out there to share your story with others. You never know whose life you will touch, and whose life you might even save. Knowledge is power, PINK POWER!