Last April, 37-year-old Kelli Cravey made the most difficult decision of her life. The Eden mother of two young children — a 5-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son, had both her breasts removed — even though she didn’t have breast cancer.
Called a “prophylactic double mastectomy” healthy breasts are removed in an effort to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer in the future for women who are at increased risk for the disease. In Cravey’s case, the risk of developing breast cancer was 87 percent.
Advances in genetic testing have made the surgery more common, although most people had never heard of it before Angelina Jolie went public with her decision to have the procedure done.
Cravey lost her mother to breast cancer when she was 15.
“My mother was only 40 when she was diagnosed. She battled cancer for four years and she passed away when I was 15. Watching her go through that was terrible,” Cravey said.
Cravey knew that cancer could run in families, but it was years later when she called her aunt, who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer, that she found out that there was a lot of cancer in her family.
“Losing your mom at such a young age you lose those conversations you might have had,” Cravey said.
As the coordinator of Making Strides Against Breast Cancer events in New York and New Jersey for the American Cancer Society, Cravey is much more informed than most people about cancer treatments and options, and she knew she wanted to undergo genetic testing, but it still took her a long time to finally do it.
There’s the question of what to do with the information once it’s obtained, and then there is a cost consideration.
“First, I had to talk to my father and my husband. It’s so emotional, but they were very supportive and they both knew it was something I had to do. I thought they might think I’m a little radically aggressive. But it turns out we were all on the same page,” Cravey said.
And after making some phone calls, she found out that in New York state, if a patient meets the criteria — which in Cravey’s case was a strong family history of cancer — the otherwise expensive genetic testing is covered by insurance, as is the mastectomy and subsequent reconstructive surgery.
“All of these obstacles and hurdles in front of me were disappearing. There was no question I was going to have the surgery. I’m a worrier. I work and have lived with cancer around me since I was in sixth grade. But that’s me. This is a decision you have to make for yourself. But when you watch your mom slowly die for four years … you don’t even mess with it,” Cravey said.
She went for the testing and the results came back showing she had a mutation in her BRCA 1 gene, which put her chances of getting breast cancer at almost 90 percent.
“It was only one month between the time I got my test results and when I had the surgery. I just wanted them (breasts) gone,” Cravey said.
Still, it wasn’t something she took lightly.
“I talk about this so matter of fact, but I don’t want you to think there’s not tons of emotion that goes with it. It was a tough decision. I dragged my feet a little bit — and it wasn’t a fun surgery, but it’s what I needed to have done to be around for my kids,” Cravey said.
The surgery went well, and all the testing on her lymph nodes came back negative.
“That was the one thing I was nervous about was getting the pathology back. I got the results back a few days early, ironically on my mom’s birthday,” Cravey said.
Determined to take control of the situation, and aware that someday her daughter might have to have the procedure as well — the doctors told Cravey that daughter Coral, should have the genetic testing when she is 18 — Cravey went through the recovery period with her usual “take charge” attitude.
“In hindsight it worked out well with my daughter being the age she is … she was 5 years old and she was so interested in seeing in what I was doing. She ended up helping me clear out my drain tubes. I hadn’t let her see anything, but I felt like if I made it a bigger deal, and if she had to go through this some day, then it would be a big deal. But if this is just the thing that we do to stay healthy — and it’s not fun —but then it takes that power out of it. But when I did finally show her my scars … that was one of the toughest things for me,” Cravey said.
Cravey had her husband Adam take pictures throughout the whole ordeal, so she could digest what was happening. But it wasn’t until she was finally able to take her first shower after the surgery that it finally hit home.
“I was finally able to take a shower and could look in the mirror and see it … because I literally got in the shower and just cried … and that was the first moment of realizing that this really happened and this is going to look like this,” Cravey said.
Today, Cravey is undergoing tissue expansion as she awaits breast implants.
“I have no regrets. None. But I don’t want anyone to think there’s not pain that goes with it. Adam was my rock through all of it. He’s retired from the Coast Guard and he had his own medical clinics on the boat, so having the knowledge he did medically was huge ... You have to find the silver linings,” Cravey said.
She understands that most women who have a mastectomy face months of chemotherapy and radiation, and she is grateful she was able to just recover from surgery.
“My sister sent me an amazing gift basket filled with everything in it you’d need after having a double mastectomy. It was great, but a lot of the stuff had pink ribbons on it, and I kind of felt like a poser, just because I took one single step in the journey women who have breast cancer go through. It’s such a different beast,” Cravey said.
Since her surgery, Cravey has talked 13 other women into having genetic testing, and her brother will also undergo the testing.
“It’s rare for a man to have breast cancer, but they can get it. And my brother has three little girls, so (the testing) is more to unlock the family history,” Cravey said.
“Everyone has a BRCA gene. It’s like an 80,000 letter word, and mine has a misspelling,” Cravey said.
Genetic testing also revealed that after age 40, Cravey has a 44 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer. Will she have her ovaries removed as well? “Absolutely. It will be an early 40th birthday present.”
Cravey attended Michigan State University. She landed an internship with the Tonight Show in New York City and worked there for a while.
She eventually moved on to other TV jobs with Dick Clark Productions, and ending up working on the MTV show “Punked.”
But as her career took off, she began thinking that she should do more with her talents. “I worked in TV for seven years, and found my niche in hidden camera television. But I just started thinking, ‘What good am I doing? I’m not leaving my mark. I’m putting on a so-so TV show.’ ”
She thought she might want to start an event coordinator business and donate money to breast cancer research. “So I started doing some investigating and found that every time there was a breakthrough (in breast cancer), the American Cancer Society was involved, so I decided to go to work for them,” Cravey said.
After working in various positions at ACS, Cravey finally got the job of coordinating Making Strides Against Breast Cancer events about two years ago.
As someone who has dealt with the effects of cancer extensively, Cravey isn’t shy about telling women — and everyone else — that the most important thing you can do is take responsibility of your own health.
“You need to be your own health advocate. You have to get all the information you can and make the best decision for yourself. Do your due diligence. Get fear out of the way. Find a good doctor and ask questions. When you go to the doctor, take someone with you. I recorded my conversations so I could listen to them later,” Cravey said.
“Breast cancer isn’t the most deadly cancer … but it is the most feared cancer. But now people know about it and people can talk about it,” Cravey said. “The number one call we get into our (ACS) call center is about breast cancer. That’s why we made Making Strikes Against Breast Cancer a cancer-specific event,” Cravey said.
As part of her job, Cravey speaks at 27 Making Strikes kick-off breakfasts every year, so she is comfortable talking about her experiences, and sometimes she worries that she is too matter-of-fact when she discusses cancer.
“Because this is my life, one thing I always have to work toward is — it’s very easy for me to say with a with a very straight face that I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 15, but there’s so much more to it. There’s so much pain and heartache around that … I opened up when I spoke in New York City and I read the opening to a letter that my mom wrote to me. My mom wrote me a letter kind of like an insurance policy — to guide me through all the stages in my life until I’m grown … so, it just talks about everything and it’s her wanting me to hear from her and not somebody else.
“Breast cancer absolutely comes through and wreaks havoc on peoples’ lives. We’re getting better at it. Cancer death rates have gone down 30 percent since the ‘80s … people are living with it. It’s a hiccup in their life as opposed to a death sentence. The key is catching it early — the key getting your mammograms, getting your screenings and knowing your breasts so that when there is a change you’ll know. It doesn’t have to be a lump, 85 percent of lumps come back benign. But you have to get fear out of the way and get to the other side of it,” Cravey said.
Coordinating the breast cancer walks is a dream job for Cravey, and she is determined to make a difference in women’s lives.
“This is my lot in life. Going through what I went through — I was made for this role. This has been an awesome, wild ride. I get to deal specifically with breast cancer every day, in memory of my mom. It’s pretty great.”