Twins Roxana and Ana Lopez were just 17 years old when their mom died of breast cancer. It was 2007 — still six years before Angelina Jolie would reveal she had the BRCA1 gene, introducing the term into the general lexicon — and they hadn’t heard of genetic testing.
“Because we were younger, our parents didn’t really tell us about what was going on,” Roxana, now 28, tells PEOPLE. “I understand that our parents didn’t want to worry us with all the details of her cancer, but looking back, I wish they shared more about what our mom was going through.”
As the twins entered their twenties and started hearing more about the BRCA1 gene, they knew genetic testing was something they should do — but waited.
“It was on our to-do list, but we just kept pushing it off. We really thought that we had more time,” Ana says.
“I felt like I had more time to get genetic testing done,” Roxana adds. “You never really hear about young women in their early- or mid-twenties getting breast cancer.”
Then, in Aug. 2015, Roxana was diagnosed with breast cancer after she found a lump during a self-exam. She was 25.
“It was a shock,” she says. “At the same time, it wasn’t very surprising because of my mom, but at this age that’s not something you expect. I just thought, wow, we’re going to go through this again. How crazy is this — a mother and daughter. You just never think it’ll happen to you, and again in this family.”
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Her diagnosis pushed the two of them, along with their brothers, to finally go through with genetic testing. All of them tested positive for the BRCA1 gene, meaning they were predisposed to develop breast and other cancers.
“It was kind of like a sick joke. I felt like the odds were so against our family,” Ana says. “But I wasn’t surprised, and I was mentally preparing myself. I kind of knew, deep down, that I would have it. I was ready to take the next steps, after that.”
Roxana started a clinical trial that is specifically for patients with the BRCA1 gene, and then traditional chemotherapy.
“The whole time during the treatments, I had so much support,” Roxana says. “I felt like I had my mom there in spirit, helping me along the way.”
At the end of her chemotherapy, Roxana got a double mastectomy to complete her treatment, and Ana decided to get a preventive mastectomy.
“The decision wasn’t out of fear. Maybe there was a little bit of anger, thinking that I didn’t have control of my life, but at the same time you are taking control because you’re reducing risk,” Ana says. “I really felt blessed to have the opportunity to do so. My sister — she didn’t get that. I felt very empowered knowing I was taking control.”
Roxana learned that she was in remission in May 2016, and the twins went on to nursing school. They’re now both clinical nurses at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where they received treatment.
“Even though I wished we didn’t have to go through this, it kind of helped, as a family, finding out and going through it together,” Roxana says.