Ghecemy Lopez “This is part of me, but it doesn’t define me… It’s not going to change my life or stop me.”

‘This is part of me, but it doesn’t define me’

Ghecemy Lopez on breast cancer

Ghecemy is a breast cancer survivor and an advocate for bilingual patient outreach

Ghecemy Lopez still remembers a hug that happened 25 years ago. One afternoon as a young girl, she was visiting her grandmother’s best friend in her quiet hometown on the coast of Veracruz, Mexico. She’d regularly stop by to visit and always greeted her with a warm embrace. But on that particular day, when she hugged the woman, confusion and fright overcame her.

“I felt like something was missing in her chest, and that was very shocking for a little eight-year-old because I didn’t know why that was happening,” Ghecemy recalls. No words passed between them. “With her eyes, I felt like she wanted to tell me the truth, but she didn’t explain… It’s like a whisper. Cancer was the thing that nobody wanted to talk about.”

Today, at just 33, Ghecemy is also a breast cancer survivor. It was a regular weeknight in February 2011 when she was watching TV with her husband in their Los Angeles home that she discovered the lump. Within a week, she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer known as triple negative. Ghecemy’s doctor urged her to consider genetic testing, given the rarity of her condition for a woman of only 30.

The genetic counselor informed Ghecemy that she had tested positive for a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which greatly increases a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. She also learned that it was her father, not her mother, who’d passed it down to her. “My world just crumbled there, because I could not feel 100% happy for the fact that my mom was not going to have to deal with this, but then knowing that my dad was a carrier… And then thinking about my brother and the generations that will come after us—what does that mean? What about my cousins or my aunts and uncles?”

The BRCA1 mutation doesn’t only run in her family’s bloodline; research has shown that the specific subtype of Ghecemy’s mutation (deletion exon 9-12) originated more than 600 years ago in the Toltec population, an ancient civilization who lived in the same part of Mexico as Ghecemy’s ancestors.

But instead of looking back, Ghecemy is looking forward. She’s now an active breast cancer advocate, employed in bilingual patient outreach, and mentors young children in her spare time. “I don’t think about the mutation as I used to any more, maybe because I’m learning more about it. I just really see it as, ‘Okay, this is part of me, but it doesn’t define me.’ I just happen to have breast and ovarian cancer predisposition. It’s not going to change my life or stop me.”

During a recent trip to visit family in Mexico, Ghecemy reunited with the old woman she befriended during her childhood. “When I saw her again, she told me, ‘Now you know exactly what I was going through that day when you hugged me.’ She remembered it, too.”