October 3, 2018

Talking to Kids About Cancer is Subject of “Mom Genes,” First Book in Series

By Anne Levin

With statistics suggesting that about one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime, October — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — has become a key time for advocates of research, care, and advances in genetic testing.

Among them is Shannon Pulaski, a Millstone native who has written a book to help parents start a conversation with children about their family’s health history. Mom Genes, published in August by Cure Media Group, is a direct result of Pulaski doing just that with her 7-year-old twin daughters and 4-year-old son.

“This book is two-fold,” said Pulaski, who will read from the book at 11 a.m. on Friday at Princeton Playspace, 745 Alexander Road. “It’s for kids, but also for adults who can maybe step back and consider what is in their family tree. I’m hoping not only to help have that conversation between parents and children, but also to change the way people communicate with doctors about their family history, because it is so important.”

Pulaski knows this only too well. When her twins were infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) seven years ago, she learned that her mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Pulaski got herself tested for the BRCA gene and learned she was carrying the gene mutation that greatly increases the risk of developing cancer.

“My chance of getting breast cancer was 72 percent, and ovarian cancer about 40 percent,” she said. “So it really triggered a need for me to understand how I could be more vigilant and proactive about my health, especially as a mom.”

That vigilance means Pulaski is a frequent visitor to doctors’ offices. “Because I’m proactive and a BCRA carrier, I’m there all the time,” she said. “So my children have questions. I decided to start talking to them about it, but I didn’t want to overwhelm them or introduce topics that I think are beyond what they need to know.”

Mother and children began sketching pictures together. “We had all of these drawings and conversations,” Pulaski said. “And I thought, maybe we should make a book out of this. So we pieced it together, as a family, and it began to look like a good idea. I ended up hiring an illustrator, but the kids created the context for the final illustrations.”

Family health history is “a constant conversation in the house now,” added Pulaski. “It’s about understanding that your genes can impact your health, and you need to understand that. I’m making my children better, stronger, and more active participants in their health.”

The picture book is intended as a starting point for what can be difficult conversations. It includes interactive elements such as a search and find game and a simple family tree for young children. Future editions of the series are planned, focusing on specific genetic predispositions. The book is available on amazon.com.

Pulaski, who is an attorney as well as an author and patient advocate, volunteers as an educational ambassador for Bright Pink, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on early detection and prevention of breast and ovarian cancers. She also serves on the Young Leadership Council for The Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. She is a strong advocate for genetic testing, which is getting more specific all the time.

“Almost every time I talk to someone, there is a story about their family or someone they know,” she said. “With all of these advances in the genetics field, everything is changing and in the future, we’ll all have a lot more options. And once a patient understands this, they can get in front and advocate for themselves and their families and make informed decisions.”