At 28 years old, Tera Martin faces an uphill battle against Stage Three breast cancer. While breast cancer in women under 30 is rare, 1 in 2,500 females under 30 still develop the disease each year. The likelihood of women over 40 developing the disease jumps to 1 in every 250.
A year ago, Tera was living a normal life as an event planner in Los Angeles. It was during a trip home to Seattle for the holidays that her life changed in almost every way possible. Shortly after arriving, Tera received some bad news: her mother had been diagnosed with Stage One breast cancer.
At this point, the Martins had had a long history of breast cancer in their family. The great grandmother and grandmother of Tera and her sister, Ashley, had also battled the disease. “I found a lump through self-examination right after my mother’s lumpectomy,” Tera shares. “I actually had trouble getting diagnosed. I was told it was benign, that I was too young.” After diagnosis, Tera represented the fourth generation of women in her family to develop breast cancer.
This fact spurred both Tera and Ashley to get tested for the breast cancer genes. BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 are two genetic mutations discovered by the National Institute of Health in 1997. Scientists found that women who carried these genetic mutations were 50-80% more likely to develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. Earlier this spring, actress Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed for The New York Times detailing her similar struggle with breast cancer running in her family and her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy to reduce her chance of developing breast cancer from 87% to under 5%. Ms. Jolie also carries the BRCA-1 gene mutation.
Tera, however, is not one of the richest actresses in the world. She faced a $4,000 out of pocket expense to determine whether the cancer was hereditary or caused by environmental factors.
Tera and her boyfriend, Josh Kilburn, during treatment at the hospital.
Not only did Tera test positive for both BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, but doctors also found tumors that had been growing in Tera’s body for the past two years. “I know why I have cancer,” begins Tera, explaining her reasoning for taking the test. “It is in my genes. It’s refreshing to know that I have some type of background for why this was happening to me.”
For Ashley, who does not have breast cancer, the genetic test was not refreshing at all. “I have about a 50/50 chance. A part of me didn’t want to get tested. Then the results came back positive. Sometimes, I have these scary thoughts: ‘It’s not if, but when’. I try to stay focused on prevention and not focus on the negatives.”
With breast cancer plaguing the Martins, the family began researching everything they possibly could on the disease and its prevention. Shortly after moving back to Seattle to help support her mother, Tera was introduced to Marco, the founder of Evergreen Herbal, a local company that manufactures organic cannabis-infused snacks and beverages for medical patients.*
Having suggested medical cannabis to her mother after her lumpectomy, Tera was quick to turn to cannabis as an alternative medicine and type of lifeline to help her get through her own intense treatments. Because Tera was already at Stage Three when she was diagnosed, her treatment plan is very aggressive: five months of chemotherapy followed by a bilateral mastectomy, then six weeks of daily radiation and five years on the hormonal drug Tamoxifen.
This all becomes quite exhausting. “Chemotherapy automatically takes the life out of you,” she explains, “From the time I get there to the time I leave, I feel like a completely different person.”
So far, medical cannabis has been able to check back some of the physical and mental toll from the cancer treatment. “Integrating medical marijuana into my therapies has really helped my pain management, my sleep. I have crazy insomnia where I can’t get to bed until 6 a.m. I use different strains and products for different symptoms.”
Tera has created her own plan for integrating cannabis into her treatment schedule. “While I am at treatment,” she tells us, “I’ll do a cannabis-infused tea with honey. It’s not very strong, but it’s soothing so I'm still able to know what’s going on and talk with everyone and manage my pain.”
Tera, posing in a photo shoot for the Pink Gene Foundation 2013 Gala
“A lot of times, being a cancer patient causes a lot of anxiety and worry,” she continues. “It is scary. Sometimes I overlook that because my mindset is different than other patients—I try to be as positive as I can. Some days are very hard though, harder than others. Cannabis helps with that. It helps relax you and helps you to be able to chill out and watch a movie.”
In order to help other breast cancer patients, Tera and Ashley have started the Pink Gene Foundation. The Pink Gene Foundation is designed to spread awareness about breast cancer to young women. “Young people need to know that your health and your body should always be on the forefront of your mind,” explains Ashley. “All of those times you didn’t go to the doctor because you’re busy add up—you need to make time.”
The Pink Gene Foundation aims to create a fund which helps financially vulnerable young women afford the expensive genetic testing needed to discover hereditary breast cancer. While breast cancer in young women is rare, getting the genetic test early can be key to developing a preventative lifestyle.
In order to help Tera and Ashley achieve this goal, Evergreen Herbal is donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of their Pink Lemonade this month to support Breast Cancer Awareness. As Tera says best, “If I didn’t take the initiative and go to the doctor, I probably wouldn’t be here in a couple of years. Spreading awareness is so important. In order for women to really take charge of their bodies and tackle this crazy disease, you need to know your body.”
If you would like to help support the Pink Gene Foundation, Tera and Ashley are holding their first annual Bald and Beautiful Gala tomorrow evening (October 23rd). They have parnterned with another local non-profit, Check Your Boobies, to put on the event. Proceeds will go to the foundation, supporting their mission to educate young women about their bodies, genetic testing, and breast cancer.
*Tera and Ashley now both work for Evergreen Herbal.