Highland Park mom, daughter raise breast cancer gene awareness
Gayl Walder (right) and her daughter Sydnee Walder, a senior at Highland Park High School, have founded Empower 2U, a student-run organization to raise awareness to breast cancer gene issues. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 25, 2013 8:08AM
HIGHLAND PARK — Gayl Walder made a difficult decision after she learned she carried the breast cancer gene.
Rather than live her life on edge between doctors’ visits and frequent mammograms, Walder opted to undergo a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction and hysterectomy — all in one, 12-hour surgery.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but one that afforded some peace of mind.
“I felt it was just a matter of time,” said Walder, whose Ashkenazi Jewish descent puts her at high risk to carry one of the two BRCA genes that dramatically increase the probability of developing breast and ovarian cancers. “I thought, I can’t live my life always thinking, ‘Is this going to be it?’”
Her daughter Sydnee, a senior at Highland Park High School, has picked up the cause and last year spearheaded the formation of Empower 2U, an organization working to draw awareness to BRCA gene issues and raise funds for genetic testing of patients who could not otherwise afford it.
“I know a lot of people at the high school whose mothers have passed away from breast cancer,” said Sydnee Walder, noting the family history means frequent mammograms starting at age 20. “But people didn’t know about the gene.”
Gayl knows her daughter might have to make a similar difficult decision one day.
“The scary thing is, (BRCA) does not skip a generation,” mom said. “If you have it, then one of your children will most likely have it.”
Gayl wasn’t aware of her own risk until her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. When her mother tested positive for the BRCA gene, doctors advised that her three grown daughters be tested.
“I didn’t know what she was talking about,” said Walder, of her reaction.
Walder tested positive while her two sisters did not, and it proved to be life-altering news.
The presence of the gene meant she had up to a 90 percent chance of getting breast cancer. Her odds of developing ovarian cancer were roughly 50 percent, particularly worrisome since ovarian cancer is harder to detect and often not diagnosed until its late stages.
“I want to be here for my children,” explained Walder, a yoga instructor who has enjoyed good health.
After her surgery, Walder spent time at a yoga cancer center in New York, and she’d convinced the healing power of yoga is what pulled her through the ordeal.
While marketing a DVD she’d made of yoga techniques that can be practiced in a physicians’ waiting room, her daughter Sydnee stepped in to help with the effort.
“It evolved into a much bigger project,” said Sydnee.
The fundraiser Nov. 30 at the Equinox in Highland Park, where Walder teaches three classes, drew 500 people and raised $15,000 for the organization, which recently obtained 501(c)3 status. The group’s mission is to assist women who cannot otherwise afford the cost of genetic testing or mammograms.
The Walders expect the fundraiser to become an annual Empower 2U event.