Courage in the Face of Fear: Danielle Burmaster
August 28, 2019
I met Danielle through Spartan obstacle course racing a few years back when Derek and I joined up with the Bravo Company, a group of people who run endurance events and raise money to support veterans. I knew she was a badass even then, but I had no idea how much her physical accomplishments out there on the course really meant. No one could see the physical and emotional challenges she was facing.
You may know that Joshua 1:9 “be strong and courageous” has been a verse that has guided our family’s life over the past few years. I recently came across Danielle on social media (she had been off for some time) and her story stopped me in my tracks. She is truly an example of being courageous in the face of fear.
You see, Danielle is a ‘Previvor in Progress.’
Danielle’s parents divorced when she was two and she spent her childhood primarily in California with her mom, visiting her father and his family in Madison, Wisconsin during the summers. At 18 Danielle decided to make the brave decision to move to Madison for college. She says she was terrified and her decision wasn’t real popular among her California friends. Understood or not, she took the leap and she is grateful she did. Things happen for a reason and she says the decision to move to Madison eventually led to the birth of her beautiful, now 13-year-old son.
Danielle and her mom were best friends and she says her heart was torn when she left her to move to Wisconsin. It was during this time in college that she got a very difficult call from her mom – she was calling to tell her that she had breast cancer. “She encouraged me not to worry. She told me her Nurse Practitioner found the lump in its very beginning stages. She told me ‘Early detection saves’ – this is a phrase often repeated in the breast cancer awareness community.”
Danielle says other than that she remembers very little from that conversation. She was scared and she only understood the prognosis could be bad. Following that, her mom endured years of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgeries and “by the Grace of God and her own superhero strength,” she is alive today, 20 years later.
During the course of her treatment, the doctors suggested her mom take a genetic test to see if she tested positively for the breast cancer gene known as BRCA. She had quite a few of the predetermining factors: Eastern European heritage and a myriad of relatives with cancer including ovarian and breast.
The test returned positive for the marker for a BRCA 1 mutation, indicating she was facing varying risks towards both ovarian and breast cancer. The doctor encouraged Danielle and her sister to both be tested as well.
It was in 2009 when Danielle learned that she too carried the BRCA 1 gene. She had already had her son, but she decided that until her family was complete, she’d wait and just be closely monitored so that if cancer showed up they could “catch it early.” Every year since then Danielle has had pelvic ultrasounds, breast MRIs, mammograms, CA-129 blood tests, and breast exams. Some of her testing even required monitoring twice a year.
Danielle says that while the alternative to doing these tests would put her at risk, scheduling all of these examinations annually also proved challenging to fit into a hectic schedule full of everything so many parents can identify with – soccer, working out, professional development, etc. But she valued her health and took the time and to date has remained cancer free!
Even with the monitoring and clear reports, she always carried the knowledge of the BRCA 1 in the back of her mind: 85-88% chance of getting breast cancer by age 55; 60-65% chance of getting ovarian cancer by age 55. “How much longer are you going to let it go,” her OBGYN finally asked at an appointment.
Danielle finally decided it was time to take action and in December 2018 she had a full hysterectomy. Danielle says “I am proud to say I am ovarian cancer risk free now!”
Then on August 4th, just three weeks ago, Danielle had her first breast surgery – a bilateral mastoplexy or breast lift. She says she’ll still have about an 85% chance of developing breast cancer by the time she is 55 until she has a full mastectomy which will come in later procedures.
So many people question Danielle’s decision. “So you’ve never had cancer, but have elected to have the surgeries anyways because you’re a BRCA1 mutation carrier?” Having never walked in her shoes, people can’t understand the decisions and statistics and information Danielle has gathered and contemplated for ten years. Personally, having experienced years of infertility challenges, I know what it means to go in to see medical professionals month after month after month, deal with invasive procedures, and wait on dreaded phone calls. It is agonizing. And I cannot imagine what that looks like over ten years, when expecting a cancer diagnosis with each call.
So why now? Danielle says the tipping point for her was when the risks became greater than 50%. Additionally, making decisions ahead of a diagnosis gives her many more options since cancer is not present. So later this year or next summer Danielle will undergo “skin sparing” and “nipple sparing” mastectomy with implant reconstruction.
Danielle credits her swift healing from these procedures to date to being very healthy and active physically and mentally heading into them. She loves to run, dance, lift weights, do yoga, hike, bike, and meditate. Making hard decisions has been easier knowing her body was in its best condition to recover and heal. As an example, only two and a half weeks after her hysterectomy in December she was cleared to do “any activity as long as I didn’t feel tired!” Her friend Karen had planned to bring her a meal that evening but instead Danielle invited her to meet for yoga. Her friend was shocked at how quickly she was cleared for activity. Danielle says, “I impressed myself too!” Well yes, I’d say so!
In Danielle’s words, “I truly believe that because I am taking charge of my physical health, I recovered quickly from the hysterectomy and I will recover quickly from the breast surgeries coming up. I am grateful to have overcome what feels like minor adversities from being a BRCA1 mutation carrier, when I consider that cancer is on the other side of this coin. The journey of my life feels like it’s just beginning now at 42 years old!”
Danielle says she understands others being confused and shocked about her decisions and actions and she admits, “the honest truth is, it’s TERRIFYING.” But she also believes in her heart of hearts, “I know I am here today and stronger than ever because I learned early that I am a BRCA 1 mutation carrier.”
Danielle is fighting to live her life cancer free. She says her emotions are like being on a roller coaster – from scared beyond belief to confident that this is her chance to stop the cycle of cancer impacting her family. She is grateful for the knowledge she has and she is ready to fight for all of those who couldn’t.
Danielle has taken to social media to share her story at @brc_yacancer to give others awareness of the importance of screenings and taking all steps necessary to fight for your health.
Danielle, I look forward to watching your journey unfold and I will be out here cheering and praying for you every step of the way. Thank you for showing us what it means to be BRAVE. It’s not about waiting for the fear to pass, but taking courageous steps in the face of fear. I’ll be right here with you as you say “C-YA” to cancer!