B.C. woman hopes to inspire people to get genetic testing

It has been more than 10 years since Ashley Doyle was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and she is once again sharing her story in hopes that it can help – or even save – another person.

The Roberts Creek resident was 28 years old and working for Coast Reporter as a graphic designer when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer over the Christmas holidays in 2011. Now at 38 years old, a lot has changed since then. 

Starting a support group

As soon as she could, Doyle began helping other people who have been diagnosed with cancer. In 2013, Doyle helped start the Ruby Slipper Cancer Support Group, and was invited to be a keynote speaker for the Sunshine Coast Community Service Society’s 2016 Celebration of Excellence. She also hosted two cancer retreats on the Coast for young women – she was tired of living with fear and anxiety, and wanted to help others.

For the last four years, Doyle has been living with advanced cancer. On her 34th birthday, in 2017, Doyle was told it had progressed to Stage 4 incurable metastatic breast cancer. Only 30 per cent of early-stage breast cancers return metastatic. It wasn’t until 2018 that Doyle learned about the PalB2 mutation that meant she always had high risk for breast cancer – about 60 per cent. 

“My diagnosis is pretty serious, just with having now brain metastasis as well,” Doyle said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I thought I was going to be gone by now, back in December, but somehow I keep going. 

“Just not knowing that is kind of a wild place to live in, and I just try to do all that I can while I’m still here,” Doyle said. For her, that looks like spreading information about cancer mutations in families.

Finding distant relatives

Doyle began talking to her own family about genetic testing, to make sure they didn’t carry the same mutation. Then, with the help of Dr. Brian Shirts at the University of Washington, she began reaching out to relatives she’d never met by tracing her family tree back to her paternal great grandfather’s generation, and learned about more diagnoses that could potentially be linked. She learned that her specific variant is also carried by women in a Czech and Slovak study, and she’s in several Facebook groups trying to connect with other relatives who may be at-risk carriers.

By sharing her story, Doyle hopes to inform and inspire people under 45 to get large gene panel testing if they have cancer in their family. Before 2016, anyone diagnosed with cancer in B.C. – like Doyle – was only tested for two genes, but there are tests for 85 to more than 135 genes. At the time, Doyle was denied such testing, she said. She wants to get the word out about the importance of screening for a positive gene error, monitoring for symptoms, and being able to prevent cancer or create a personalized treatment to reduce the risk of recurrence.

“I care so much about this not happening to other people. What’s happened in my life is heartbreaking. Just devastating. And if only families can know and protect their children,” she said, noting that kids can’t be tested until they are 18.

Finding her passions

Doyle is still the creative person she has always been. She grew up in Squamish before moving to the Coast in 2008, where she worked for Coast Reporter until 2017. She enjoys spending time in nature, whether on the beach or among trees. She has a vision for design and likes yard work when she is physically able to do it. Her time is spent with her loved ones, including her husband, Mike, of 18 years. Doyle is also musically talented, but hasn’t been able to get out much during the pandemic, being high-risk. 

“I was private about my Stage 4 diagnosis for four years, because we lost the ability to have kids. And that put me in such grief that I didn’t even know who I was even for that long period. 

“But my voice has been coming out since October, and I’m realizing more of what I’m passionate about,” she says. 

As Doyle continues treatment, she plans to go to a cancer clinic in Germany when it is necessary and safe to do so. That treatment, she hopes, could elongate her life by minimizing her brain metastasis. Some friends set up a GoFundMe fundraiser “Help support Ashley facing stage 4 breast cancer” to help with the cost of treatment not covered by healthcare, as well as day-to-day necessities. You can also follow her story on Instagram at @ashleyblairdoyle.

“Time is really all that matters to me,” Doyle said. “I just don’t want to be gone. I’m not ready.”

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