One of the things I love about my work in advocacy is discovering amazing people who are doing the work and making a difference! Valeda Keys is one such remarkable person. She’s a Global Ambassador for Breast Cancer Awareness, using her platform and the Non-Profit organization she founded, Valeda’s Hope, to assist women in their journey from diagnosis to remission. She has one hell of a compelling story that includes a family history of breast cancer, a personal battle with breast cancer that included seven surgeries, and finding strength and empowerment in helping others.
When I learned about her work on LinkedIn, I was blown away.
Valeda, who is an Author, Speaker, LPN, Non-Profit Founder, Breast Health Navigator, and all around incredible human being, helped her mother through a breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and later recurrence. A dream told her that she would one day endure her own battle with breast cancer, which unfortunately came true in 2010. Luckily, because of her family history, Valeda started receiving mammography screening at the age of 27 and kept up with her screenings, which allowed her healthcare team to detect her first breast cancer at an early stage. After a lumpectomy, she received the results of her genetic testing, which revealed that she carries a variant of the BRCA-2 (BReast CAncer gene 2) gene associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Quick Science Break
Everyone has two BRCA1 and two BRCA2 genes, but sometimes a variant of one of these genes that doesn’t work gets passed down from one of your parents. If something happens to the other copy of the BRCA gene in a cell (for example, a cell from your breast or ovary), it can increase your risk for cancer. Why? BRCA genes encode information to make proteins that help fix damage to DNA. DNA molecules encode and store all the information a cell needs to make proteins, which allows a cell to live and perform its function. When DNA is damaged, it messes with the code, and if the damage isn’t repaired, cells make defective proteins that don’t function well or in the case of cancer-causing oncogenes, function too well. Defects in some genes make cells grow uncontrollably, and sometimes those cells turn into cancer cells. Variants of BRCA genes that don’t function to fix DNA damage makes it more likely for oncogenes to get activated and make cells grow uncontrollably, leading to cancer. In the graphic above, you can see a DNA repair deficient breast cell in which the BRCA genes encode DNA repair proteins that don’t work. Because the defective BRCA gene produces a defective protein, the cell can’t repair DNA damage and gets a lot more mutations in a lot of different genes. Some of these mutations create defective proteins that let the cell grow uncontrollably, even without estrogen (E2) or other cues from the body that tell cells when to grow. See my Cancer 101 blog post and my other blog post on how cells become cancerous for a refresher on the cell biology of breast cancer, DNA damage and how it leads to cancer, and oncogenes.
End Science Break
Now, back to Valeda’s story. Since she carries a variant of BRCA-2 that doesn’t work, she was still at risk for getting another breast cancer or ovarian cancer after her first breast cancer diagnosis. She decided to keep her breasts and get screened more often, a valid choice. (Note: there are no right or wrong choices when it comes to keeping your breasts or having a double mastectomy. There are only informed choices you make with your healthcare team that are right for you.). She also endured radiation therapy that led to some serious complications, and was treated with tamoxifen, a drug that blocks estrogen function. In spite of this, she was diagnosed with a new breast cancer in 2011 and opted for a double mastectomy and autologous reconstruction (i.e. reconstruction using her own tissue from her abdomen to build new breasts), which unfortunately came with some complications, and later had a hysterectomy.
Through it all, she remained focused and determined not to let breast cancer get in the way of living a full life and achieving her goals. Her faith helped her through, and it gave her a mission to educate, empower, and help other women through their own breast cancer journeys. Among the many amazing things she does through Valeda’s Hope, Valeda sponsors a ton of mobile mammography events and encourages women to keep up with life-saving screenings. She shares her knowledge and experience through speaking engagements and educational events like Valeda’s Hope Pink & Pearls Luncheons. Valeda also hosts events that provide emotional and physical support as well as information about genetic testing for breast cancer risk genes, and so much more.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the breast cancer survivor community is so supportive! Survivors support other survivors, patients, and caregivers. As a survivor, Valeda is using her voice and actions to help other women survive and thrive, and that deserves a spotlight, kudos, and celebration!
You can read Valeda’s full story by grabbing a copy of her book, My Strength is Your Strength: Winning Against Breast Cancer. To support her work, consider making a donation or purchasing VHope Cosmetics.