Her voice was soft but the words still hurt. ‘I’m dying,’ Mum said and I looked at her in shock, too numb to cry. It was June 12, 1998 – she was 48 and had ovarian cancer. I was 20 and not ready to say goodbye.

Mum had been diagnosed four years earlier and I’d always believed she’d win her fight for life. She’d had surgery to remove her ovaries and started chemotherapy, which left her bedridden for weeks after every cycle.

Much less was known about ovarian cancer back then, although I do remember Mum telling me she’d asked a consultant at Southend General, Essex, UK, if her daughters were at risk of developing the same cancer. The answer was grim. Researchers had discovered the BRCA1 and 2 genes. ‘It means a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers is greatly increased if they have it,’ he told Mum.

She was never tested for the gene, probably because they didn’t have the expertise then to see if she was a carrier. 
I obviously didn’t understand the relevance of this discovery at the time but now I know that this gene can have deadly repercussions.

During most of her illness, Mum was strong but the chemo would take it out of her. She was a mobile hairdresser and couldn’t work, and I hated to see her losing her hair – a side effect of the treatment. ‘This cannot be,’ she uttered as clumps of her hair fell to the floor.

I was a teenager, but would make her dinner, and clean up when she was sick. ‘I’m so sorry, love,’ Mum would say. ‘I’ll feel better tomorrow I’m sure.’

Mum was always positive and as soon as she felt well enough, she’d be back making meals, doing the washing, ironing as if everything was OK, pushing herself to work.

I remember we didn’t have much money – Mum was divorced and had to raise my older sister, my brother and me by herself. Apart from my school clothes I had two or three outfits and one bra that I would wash over and over. I didn’t want to ask Mum for anything. She was going through enough without me putting pressure on her.

Mum had four rounds of chemotherapy and finally, after four years, was told she was in remission. She’d beaten cancer and I thought that was the end of it.

Mum was always keen that we take our education seriously and encouraged me to work hard. She was so proud when I went to study human biology at Loughborough University, 120km away from our home in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire in the UK.

But then, in my second year, during a trip home, Mum told me the terrible news – she was dying from secondary cancer that had spread to her liver and colon.

I shook my head, refusing to believe her, and insisted she try something. Anything. ‘You have to fight,’ I kept saying. But after an initial operation at Southend General to try and rid her of as much of the cancer as possible, she was transferred to a hospice in Southend 10km from home. One of the nurses told me Mum would probably be dead within five days. I was devastated but determined not to fall apart. Mum needed me to be strong, and so I visited her all the time to keep her spirits up.

Amazingly, she survived another eight weeks. While she knew she was dying, she wasn’t ready to go and held on as long as possible – proof of what a strong woman she was. She died on August 5, 1998 as I held her hand. I was consumed with grief. She was my mother and I loved her so much, and couldn’t imagine a world without her in it. Organising her funeral, and giving a speech about her and how wonderful she was, is all a blur now.

Three weeks after the funeral, I returned to Loughborough to sit my exams. I didn’t tell any of my friends at university that Mum had died. I felt an enormous sense of loneliness, yet I couldn’t share my pain. I felt it was easier not to talk about it and concentrate on my studies. It was my way of coping. I couldn’t turn to my siblings either – my sister and I weren’t close and my brother was too young to understand. Instead, I put my head down, and graduated the following year.

As a biology student, and because of my mother’s illness, I had become fascinated by the genetics of cancer at university, learning that harmful mutations in the BRCA1/2 genes mean that a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers is greatly increased by the potential of harmful BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.

Around this time, I also moved into a shared house with other students where I met James Foster. Even though he was three years younger, we fell for each other instantly and it wasn’t long before my family background came up in conversation. He asked, ‘Where’s your mum?’

I explained that she had died – but then the conversation led on to other issues too.

I told him that getting ovarian cancer was something I feared because of Mum’s death.

I always checked my breasts for lumps and changes. I knew that early diagnosis was key and the risk of getting both type of cancer increases with age. Telling James all this just weeks into our relationship was risky as it could have easily scared him away. Instead he listened and said, ‘This is something we can face together.’

He made me feel safe and as our relationship grew stronger, I began to believe that I really wasn’t alone anymore.

I went to Nottingham Trent University to get a PGCE teaching qualification in further education. It meant I could teach the subject I was passionate about: A-level human biology.

At 23, I went to my GP and asked if I could be tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s not possible to be tested because only one person in your family has been diagnosed with cancer.’ It was possible to be tested privately, but it would be too expensive.

I went away heavy-hearted but life went on and James and I married on September 3, 2005, and 18 months later our daughter Isabelle was born. I was so excited to be a mum but I wished my mother could have seen my baby. I was angry I’d been robbed of her, and my grief hit me afresh.

We had a son, Ben, two years later and I gave up teaching to be a full-time mum.

The worry of developing cancer never went away because I knew the statistics were against me. I constantly checked my body for signs and followed a healthy eating regime to do everything possible to avoid cancer, eating big plates of antioxidant-rich greens.

I think the way Mum died, when I was so young, also played on my mind. The more I read about the gene from a scientific point of view, the more I suspected my mum might have carried the harmful mutation.

In 2012, I asked my GP again if I could be tested. This time he checked UK’s NICE [The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] guidelines.

‘I’m afraid your case still doesn’t qualify,’ he said.

Disappointed, I vowed I would pay privately for testing at the age of 40 as the risk of developing ovarian cancer gets higher with age.

But, months later, in September 2012, when I was 34, my sister who was living in Chicago called. ‘I’ve been tested privately to see if I carry the BRCA2 mutation,’ she told me. ‘I do.’

This meant that I had a 50/50 chance of also being a carrier. I went straight back to my GP and presented the results to him. Again he checked the NICE guidelines and because I had two confirmed members of my family with cancer or the gene, I qualified for testing.

I was referred to a geneticist who explored my family history and my personal reasons for wanting the test and took a blood sample.

Four weeks later, I was informed that I carried the Ashkenazi BRCA2 gene mutation – the same as Angelina Jolie.

Statistics given to me by my geneticist stated that I had approximately a 45-85 per cent lifetime risk of breast cancer and 10-30 per cent lifetime risk of ovarian cancer, along with a very slightly increased risk of pancreatic cancer and melanoma.

It was like I’d been punched, the statistics sent me reeling. James clutched my hand but we had some serious thinking to do. Once 
I got over the I’m-going-to-die-like-Mum shock, I started to think practically. 
I knew I had to intervene for the sake of Isabelle and Ben. I wanted to be around for them longer than my Mum was.

Like Angelina Jolie, who I’d read about in the news, I set about researching what possible medical intervention could be done to prevent me getting cancer. In my head,
I knew I would do anything to make that possible. I was also worried about my children – boys can contract the gene too – although this was too early to tell.

Being a human biologist helped me to remain logical throughout and aided my understanding of the scientific side of things. Over the next few months, I met with several consultants to consider my options.

I underwent screening, which included an MRI of my breasts, a pelvic ultrasound scan and a CA125 blood test – which detects harmful proteins in the blood.

All screening suggested I was in good health, however, my consultant warned that screening for ovarian cancer was ineffective. The gynaecology and breast consultants I saw strongly advised that I underwent both a prophylactic (preventative) salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of both ovaries and Fallopian tubes) and bilateral mastectomy. I didn’t take the decision lightly but I was glad I knew I had the gene, and what was the point of knowing if I didn’t do everything I could to stop developing cancer?

In November 2013, I had my ovaries and Fallopian tubes removed, which resulted in a surgically-induced menopause. Both my gynaecologist and breast surgeon recommended not starting HRT until after the mastectomy.

Three months later I underwent a five-hour bilateral, nipple-sparing mastectomy procedure with immediate reconstruction with implants. It was a long recovery and it took me 16 weeks to get back to feeling normal. Two weeks after surgery, my surgeon advised I start HRT.

All this surgery has had a massive impact on my life. I grieved for my old body and the fact I’d never have any more children.

I cried at times but it was more of a realisation there was no turning back.
This was the way it had to be.

Now I am relieved. I have done everything possible to protect myself. I want to be here for my family.

My children can be tested when they are 18 and I will encourage them to do so. It may be that they aren’t carriers.

It would break my heart if they had to have surgery and the last thing I want is Isabelle to plan her life around possibly dying of ovarian cancer.

Whatever happens, at least now I know I’ll be there for them. I live in hope that gene therapy (a course of drugs containing nucleic acid polymers powerful enough to correct gene mutations) will be available by then because that could change everything.

I’m so grateful to people like Angelina Jolie for being so open about her surgery.

I’ve started a website to help other women with the gene and I am even writing a book about my own personal journey, to come out next year. My life has totally changed and for the first time, I feel completely free of the fear of cancer. It’s amazing to feel so empowered, to know that cancer no longer burdens me.

Like Angelina, I want women to know there is hope and there are things you can do to prevent getting cancer if you carry
this gene.

Clarissa Foster, 37, lives in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, UK, with her husband and children. For support or more information visit Clarissa’s website at www.brcahelp.co.uk.