For Selena Martinez, cancer runs in the family.
A UC Davis alumna who graduated with a degree in cellular biology in 2006, Martinez now works as a research technician at UC San Francisco’s Miranda Lab. But growing up, she watched family member after family member mysteriously fall victim to cancer, with no obvious cause linking the separate cases.
A history of bad luck
In 1994, an uncle, Juan Martinez, succumbed to pancreatic cancer when Martinez was just 11 years old.
“I met [my uncle Juan] three weeks before he passed away. He looked pretty strong – I knew he had cancer, but he was proud, he had great poise. He was a strong man, but in a couple of weeks, the cancer took his life. That’s when reality hit me,” said Israel Alvarado, Martinez‘ cousin.
The following year, Martinez‘ father, Nazario Martinez, was diagnosed with advanced gastric cancer; doctors eventually removed his stomach to save his life. Four years later, just as Martinez began high school, her father was diagnosed again – this time with colon cancer.
Still, it seemed like the Martinez family just ran into some bad luck.
“We didn’t think anything of it at the time, there being a connection or anything. We didn’t really know,” Martinez said.
Thankfully, after intensive chemotherapy treatments, her father survived. But like some horrible curse, cancer continued to strike Martinez‘ loved ones.
The following year, her older sister Noemi was diagnosed with endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus) at the age of 32. Three years later in 2002 – Martinez‘ first year at UC Davis – her sister was diagnosed again, with colon cancer.
The family’s oncologist, disturbed by the frequency of cancer in the Martinez clan, believed there was more at play than simple misfortune.
“He said it was most likely inherited,” Martinez said. “This was the first time we heard of Lynch syndrome.”
Lynch syndrome, Martinez learned, is an inherited condition that vastly increases individuals‘ chances of contracting colorectal cancer and endometrial cancer in women, as well as cancers of the stomach, pancreas, urinary tract, bile ducts, ovary, small intestine, brain and skin. In addition, the cancers form earlier, usually in the victim’s mid-40s.
“The chance of [my family members] inheriting it is 50 percent,” Martinez explained. “It’s a dominant gene, so once you know you have it, the chances of you getting cancer are really high.“
Given the Martinez family’s history of cancer, it was likely they carried the gene mutation associated with the condition. Her sister was immediately tested, but results came back inconclusive.
It took six years until advances in genetic testing were able to provide the Martinez family with a definite answer. In 2008, Noemi tested positive, as did her father, and finally, Martinez herself.
“At that point, I was mentally prepared. I was positive; I decided … I would never want to let the fact I may get cancer in so many years affect my life. I wanted to be an example of how to deal with it, and help my family,“ Martinez said.
All in all, in the last 14 years Martinez has seen eight family members suffer through 10 bouts of cancer, with two family members (including her uncle, Juan) succumbing to the disease.
But despite an 80 percent lifetime risk of developing colon cancer herself, and a 71 percent risk of developing endometrial cancer, Martinez never saw her Lynch syndrome diagnosis as a death sentence. Rather, she saw it as an opportunity she described as “empowering.“
“I wanted to turn an overwhelming and somewhat negative situation into a positive situation,” she said.
Raising money and awareness for cancer prevention
Frustrated by a lack of public knowledge and support regarding Lynch syndrome, Martinez decided to take action.
Last September, with the help of friends and her associates at UC San Francisco, Martinez founded Detect the Mutation, an organization dedicated to promoting awareness about Lynch Syndrome.
“There’s almost nothing out there for Lynch syndrome; it’s really under the radar for the cancer community,” Martinez said. “A lot of families don’t get properly diagnosed, oftentimes because they can’t afford it.“
Detect the Mutation raises money for the Gastrointestinal Cancer Prevention Program at UCSF, which offers screening for those in need. Martinez hopes her efforts can provide resources for families and individuals interested in genetic counseling for Lynch syndrome, especially for low-income or uninsured individuals.
“Psychologically, a Lynch syndrome diagnosis can cause a lot of anxiety and a lot of nervousness,” said Megan Myers, a genetic counseling assistant at UCSF’s Cancer Risk Program. “But it’s really important to find the mutations, warn family members and [have them] understand what they are going up against…. Proper screening saves lives, and that’s what we are trying to do through the gastrointestinal program.“
Myers, whose family also has a history of Lynch syndrome, graduated from UC Davis in 2007 with a degree in genetics. She noted the vast majority of Lynch syndrome cases go undetected, causing unnecessary suffering in entire families.
To spread awareness and raise money for cancer prevention, Martinez has run three half-marathons to date: Philadelphia in November 2008; Austin, Texas in February 2009; and Santa Cruz just two weeks ago. Both Alvarado and Myers participated in the most recent marathon, donning “DetectTheMutation.org” T-shirts in honor of Noemi Martinez Garza, Martinez‘ sister and a two-time cancer survivor.
Each of Martinez‘ runs are cataloged on the Detect the Mutation website. Her goal is to run a half-marathon for each family member affected by Lynch syndrome, meaning she has at least five more planned for the future.
However, due to the costs of athletic gear, travel and registration expenses, Martinez has put her plans on hold until she can find financial sponsorship. All of her expenses are out-of-pocket, while all donations received are directed to the UCSF Gastrointestinal Cancer Prevention Program.
Undeterred, Martinez eventually hopes to turn Detect the Mutation into a full-fledged nonprofit.
“It’s a little campaign,” Martinez said. “But hopefully it will catch on.”
But for Martinez‘ loved ones, there’s nothing “little” about Martinez, or her cause.
“I think what my cousin is doing is great, not only for our family, but all families affected by Lynch syndrome…. I’m very proud, she’s been through a lot,“ Alvarado said.
“When I think about Selena Martinez, I see a bright, motivated and driven young woman who cares so deeply about her family,” Myers said. “She’s putting her foot down, and saying that this isn’t going to happen to her family anymore. This project, her marathon running, is truly inspirational.“
Visit DetectTheMutation.org for more information.
Those interested in donating can send a check to Selena Martinez, 230 Nueva Ave., San Francisco, Calif. 94134 for the UC San Francisco Gastrointestinal Cancer Prevention Program, UCSF Foundation Tax ID No. B1900.
ANDRE LEE can be reached at email@example.com.