Allyn Rose’s father first suggested the mastectomy when she was a freshman in college. It was a couple years after her mother had succumbed to breast cancer; genetic testing and a long, sad family history of early deaths indicated that Rose, too, was at a high risk.
But she resisted.
“I thought, ‘I just got my breasts! I’m young, I’m beautiful.’ I didn’t want to do this.” the southern Maryland native, 24, told us Monday. “My dad looked me in the face and said ‘You’re going to end up dead just like your mother.’”
Rose’s slow path to choosing the surgery now coincides with another journey she says she never planned on: Competing in the Miss America pageant as this year’s Miss District of Columbia. If she wins at the annual pageant in Las Vegas in January, she will postpone the surgery until after her reign ends in early 2014; if not, she’ll go under the knife at some point next year. Either way, she wants to use her story to promote a message of preventive health care.
When a great beauty undergoes a dramatic physical transformation, it captures attention, and Rose’s plans have drawn a barrage of national scrutiny since she announced her health condition in People this weekend. She says she’s ready for it.
“If there’s one 16-year-old girl who doesn’t have to live her life having lost her mom,” she said, “then I’ve won.”
Judith was first diagnosed with cancer at the age of 27 and had one breast removed; she recovered and went on to finish her graduate work, marry and have children. Allyn was in her early teens when her mom’s cancer came back. She died in 2004 at the age of 50.
Many women have opted for preventive mastectomies after testing positive for the gene mutations BRCA1 and BRCA2, which indicate a high risk for breast cancer. Rose is negative on those particular tests — but blood work has found that she’s a carrier for Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, a rare disease that has swept her mother’s family. The immune disorder manifests mostly in men; but the Roses’s family doctors suspect a correlation between between the mutation and the breast cancer that has plagued them for generations. (Sumathi Iyengar, a North Carolina pediatrician and director of the Wiskott-Aldrich Foundation, told us she’s observed some anecdotal evidence to suggest a possible connection; her group is pushing for more research.)
“All the women in my family passed away from breast cancer,” Rose said. “When I met with a surgeon, he said, ‘You’re young, but there are other people I know who are having [mastectomies] who have the same family history.” Yes, she plans to have reconstructive surgery. “There’s no reason not to, especially with all the medical advances.”
Why not pursue the surgery sooner? “I wanted to learn my options, research doctors,” she said. “Life’s kind of gotten in the way a bit.”
A graduate of La Plata High and the University of Maryland, Rose entered pageantry in 2009 via the “Miss Sinergy” contest, a local pageant benefitting breast-cancer causes. Last year she made it to the finals of Miss USA -- Miss America’s flashier rival — as Maryland’s rep. In June, the aspiring lawyer was crowned Miss D.C., a newly resurgent pageant organization that nonetheless has not won the big crown since 1944.
Her talent? “Artistic rollerskating,” a sport she competed in nationally as a kid. On stage in Vegas, she’ll be rolling old-school — on quad skates, not inlines — to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
But it’s her platform, as an advocate of preventive health care with first-hand knowledge of it, that will likely draw the most focus — and has prompted speculation she’s now a frontrunner to win.
If it happens, she says, great — “but that was never at the forefront of my mind. It was about getting this message out. It’s our job to do what we can with what we have.”
Updated 7 p.m.
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