Big Brother Canada winner donates to Rethink in honour of sister
July 20, 2022
Imagine fundraising for Rethink in high school and 10 years later going on to win one of North America’s largest competition shows and choosing to donate a generous portion of your winnings to Rethink again. Kind of a full-circle moment, no? That’s what happened with Kevin Jacobs. Yep, the winner of Big Brother Canada Season 10. Kevin has generously donated to Rethink’s mission to help people with breast cancer live better and live longer.
And there’s a personal connection to breast cancer that almost stopped Kevin from going on Big Brother Canada altogether. Weeks before he would be saying goodbye to life as he knew it and entering a world of total isolation from the outside world – the way things are in the Big Brother House — Kevin’s dear sister, Michelle, ironically a genetic counsellor, learned she is a BRCA2 carrier. She also was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma — breast cancer. Michelle navigated life-changing decisions the young people in the breast cancer community know all too well, while also cheering on her brother in the Big Brother house.
We sat down with Kevin and Michelle to talk through the whirlwind of a year the siblings have had. Read on for more!
Question (Q): Michelle, let’s start with how you got interested in genetic counselling, which provided a unique experience in your diagnosis.
Michelle (M): When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I was studying biology. I didn’t have a great direction of where I wanted to go with it, but in speaking to my family about some of my interests, I really liked my genetics course. My mom actually was the one who suggested that I look at a career being a genetic counsellor, which I had never heard of and still a lot of people have not heard of.
Genetic Counsellors work with people who have a personal or family history of medical conditions or genetic disorders, including cancer, to help them understand their risk and situation. Cancer genetics is the area Michelle works in today.
Q: How did being a genetic counsellor impact you being tested for genetic mutations like BRCA2?
M: We were not aware of BRCA in the family when I was first interested in genetic counseling. This all sort of happened starting maybe five years ago when one of my dad’s cousins was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At the time, honestly, even with my knowledge, I was not really concerned in our branch of the family. No one in three generations had been diagnosed with breast, prostate, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer, so I kind of thought maybe it was from his other parent that wasn’t a blood relative to us. And within the past year, another one of my dad’s cousins in a different branch of the family as diagnosed with cancer and also had genetic testing finding the BRCA2 mutation. At that point I had a feeling I should follow up on it.
My husband and I looked at doing pre-conception genetic testing and the particular company we worked with also offered testing for cancer genes. I think being a genetic counsellor was really helpful in this situation because this information is not always shared broadly in families. Having this background was likely the main reason that my family members thought to inform me about their results, sort of seeking advice.
Q: Can you walk us through what led to your diagnosis?
M: Based on my knowledge of the field, my chance pre-testing of being positive was 12.5%, so my thought was to do the test to rule it out. I was surprised it was positive. And pretty upset.
Working in the medical system and actually in a cancer clinic, I sprang into action pretty quickly. I knew I was at the age where it was appropriate to start breast screening. There was a spot on my mammogram that potentially looked concerning, and when I saw the MRI had also found something at the same spot, I was definitely more concerned. My health team ended up suggesting a biopsy and we found out within a week that I had invasive ductal carcinoma. I wouldn’t say I was surprised once that final diagnosis came back, but more disappointed and upset.
Q: What was is like going through treatment and not really knowing what was going to happen or what it would look like for you?
M: My treatment plan changed over the course of my diagnosis. It was a triple positive breast cancer. Everything moved very quickly. We were very much under the impression that I would be getting chemotherapy after surgery, and it was clear from the size that surgery was the first step. I think theoretically it would have been a possibility to do a lumpectomy and radiation, but with the background in genetics and knowing the lifetime risk of developing a second breast cancer, it was a pretty easy decision for me to do a bilateral mastectomy to the point where it didn’t even feel like a decision, it was a very obvious choice for me.
After surgery the final pathology actually found there was only DCIS left, so all the invasive components had been removed at the time of the biopsy. That was one piece of good news, and I actually didn’t meet with the oncologist until 2-3 weeks after surgery and by that point Kevin was in the Big Brother house and out of contact. My oncologist said she didn’t think chemotherapy would reduce the recurrence risk enough that it was worth going through that treatment and potential long-term effects. I am on Tamoxifen now, which I assumed was always the plan since I’m triple positive, but the drastic change in treatment plan was definitely a mind shift.
Q: How did you feel being diagnosed as Kevin was starting to get ready to go on this wild competition show?
M: The houseguests can’t share that they’re even going to be on the show, so I didn’t even know about Kevin going on Big Brother Canada at the time I was diagnosed. Once I found out what Kevin was actually doing and why he had been out of touch, when I was able to know, I was really, really excited. I knew he had wanted to go on a show like Big Brother for quite a while. I felt bad when I learned that Kevin thought about not doing the show because of my diagnosis, but it was actually amazing for me to have him on the show during that time. Big Brother has these live feeds that come out of the house, so you can see what the houseguests are doing a lot of the time. Because I was off work for so long after surgery, that had a good chunk of overlap of when he was in the house so it was something that I could be doing to fill my days and watching the episodes was something to look forward to.
Because Kevin went into the Big Brother house before I met with my oncologist after surgery, he unfortunately didn’t know until he came out that I wasn’t having chemotherapy. Because the plan would have been for that to happen while he was in the house. When he came out, I was actually back at work and by that time fairly back to baseline.
Q: Kevin, let’s bring you into the conversation. What was it like quickly learning about Michelle’s diagnosis, while trying to prepare for this huge opportunity and even considering not to enter the Big Brother house?
Kevin (K): It was pretty crazy. I told Michelle I was going to live a dream and a once in a lifetime opportunity, and her response was very much like, “Go do it.”
It’s the most selfish thing in the world disappearing for 3 months to go be disconnected from the world, but it was nice to have it in my mind the entire time I was there that Michelle was cheering me on. You don’t know how you’re going to be perceived in the Big Brother House. You might be hated or loved, realistically there will probably be people in both camps and there are, and so to just have Michelle as the one the a few people who I actually cared what they thought was really good for me. I was just worried about: is Michelle having fun, is she watching this and enjoying it? Focusing on that helped me a lot.
Q: What was it like to finally be able to see and talk to each other once Kevin won and was out of the house?
K: Like Michelle said, I thought the entire time I was in there that she was having chemo. So, the first phone call I made afterwards was to Jillian, my girlfriend, and she told me, with Michelle’s permission, that Michelle didn’t end up having chemotherapy and she was doing well. It was amazing news to hear. I bawled my eyes out. This was actually real emotion and worthwhile, but when you’re under that kind of stress of a 24/7 game that’s ongoing, everything is heightened. Take all your emotions and multiply them by 10. These were happy tears, and I was happy to hear that about Michelle, but it was a lot to handle, in the best way possible.
M: It was kind of surreal in some ways because we had been watching Kevin on the live feeds and on TV for a couple months by that point, so it was kind of funny, when he won, we were watching the episode in his apartment with his girlfriend, and Eric, my husband, was like, “I can’t believe we’re in his apartment, like he just won and we’re here.” It was so great to see him when he got out the house, and we were so, so proud of him.
Q: Michelle, how do you feel, how are you doing now?
M: I feel really good. I eased back into to work six weeks after the surgery. I didn’t really start feeling back to myself until probably three months after the surgery, even though I had been clear of restrictions for longer than that. I do have another surgery in September where I have to have the expanders swapped out for implants, so I’m not looking forward to that recovery, but kind of looking forward to that as the last major step in my treatment. Tamoxifen is a 5-10 year treatment so that’s more long-term. In terms of going back to work, I was actually really concerned about seeing patients. While I work specifically in a cancer genetics clinic, I don’t see a ton of patients with breast cancer. I did end up reaching out to a free counsellor through my workplace to chat about that, and that was helpful in kind of thinking through more concretely how I might feel in those kinds of scenarios, but it’s actually been fine. I don’t find that I think about my own diagnosis very often, both at work and in general.
Some of Rethink’s resources were helpful for me in this period too, especially in reading about other people who had similar experiences and made me feel less alone diagnosed as a young woman with breast cancer. Yes, there are a lot of young women with breast cancer, but there are a lot more older women. I didn’t feel like the people in the typical breast cancer support groups could relate to me as much, especially with talking about things like fertility preservation.
Q: Kevin, how are you doing with your adjustment?
K: I’m still adjusting to regular life because, in Big Brother, you are in this spaceship where you’re only allowed to talk to the other astronauts and you’re outside of the world with no phone, no WIFI, no access to any news, not hearing about anything, so it’s a lot to come back. It was amazing to see Michelle and also a cool surprise, one of many overwhelming and incredible things to happen. But in the grand scheme of things, I feel like having a family member with breast cancer puts everything into perspective. Who cares that I’m adjusting to real life a little bit? I just lived a dream. All my complaints are not real complaints. I’m just thankful Michelle is doing ok.
Q: Let’s bring you back to your CHAT days of fundraising for Rethink in high school, Kevin. Do you remember that? What inspired you to donate some of your winning prize to Rethink and what’s the impact you hope your support will have?
K: So, I’ve dreamed about being on a reality TV competition show for a while. Big Brother is the one that’s most suited to my strengths — as much as I love shows like Survivor or The Challenge, I’d get injured or sunburned. I always thought that in the small chance that I go out and win one of these shows that I’d donate a certain percentage to charity. That was just something that was in my mind for years and then when I was looking for what to do, something related to helping people with breast cancer seemed like a good idea for a couple reasons. One is obviously this has become close to home, it’s what I was thinking about in the house a lot. Two is that what Rethink does is aligned with what I wanted to help with because, frankly, I wanted to make a donation to an organization where it could actually make an impact when it comes to supporting people with breast cancer. I’ve come to understand that living with breast cancer can be incredibly challenging. When I was looking for the right place to work with, the stars sort of aligned with Rethink.
I was doing my own research and Rethink came up. I actually didn’t initially remember that I had worked with Rethink before. In high school, I was a huge student council nerd, and every year, we would do this fundraiser in October called Think Pink where we raised money for an organization. At the time when I was doing this research, I texted the student council advisor, who, again, because I’m a nerd, I’m still in contact with, and asked him what the organization was that we worked with and he said it was Rethink Breast Cancer. And then I told my mom that I was thinking about working with Rethink and she also said that Rethink was a great resource for her and Michelle. I just thought ok, this makes way too much sense! And here we are. A full circle moment of sorts.
Q: Michelle, to close, what would you want people to know or what is your advice for others navigating a breast cancer diagnosis?
M: However you deal with the diagnosis is ok and fine. I’m a very private person generally. When Kevin mentioned this opportunity to share my experience, the reason I wanted to do it was because of how much the resources from Rethink and reading other peoples’ experiences helped me, and I want to do that for others. But in general, I think there can be a lot of pressure to make something positive out of a diagnosis, especially with social media. It’s ok to deal with it however you want, whether it’s publicly or privately.
I also just want to put a plug in for genetic testing if it’s available and accessible to you.
K: Yeah, I’m going to be testing for BRCA2 as well.
M: Obviously, my story is a bit unique because I had genetic testing and then I was diagnosed on screening, but for people who are diagnosed young, it can really make a big difference in decision-making and treatment, so it can be an important piece of medical care for young people diagnosed with cancer.
Kevin’s donation is going towards Rethink’s overall mission of supporting people with breast cancer and helping them live better and live longer through things like support, education, advocacy and empowerment.
Read more stories about being diagnosed with breast cancer, here.