Georgia mother, daughter fight breast cancer together

Michelle Guterman and her mom took the at-home comprehensive genetic test by JScreen, a nonprofit headquartered at Emory University.
Mother and daughter Michelle Guterman, left, and Karen Shmerling (Photo provided by family)

Credit: Family Handout

Credit: Family Handout

Mother and daughter Michelle Guterman, left, and Karen Shmerling (Photo provided by family)

Michelle Guterman and her mother, Karen Shmerling, are “previvors.” Both women tested positive for the breast cancer gene (BRCA) and took steps to reduce the chance of having cancer before it was detected.

Guterman, 39, grew up in Sandy Springs and attended the University of Georgia. As a child life specialist in Augusta and Washington, D.C., Guterman helped young patients, their parents, and families adjust to medical conditions. She and her now husband, Josh, moved to Atlanta where Guterman attended the physician assistant program at Emory University.

As a teen, Guterman volunteered at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The medical world was familiar because her father, Dr. Ricky Shmerling, is an anesthesiologist. So when a colleague encouraged Guterman to take the BRCA test, it seemed like something she could do to help science. Little did she know she’d be a mid-30s mom diagnosed with a gene that is linked to breast cancer.

According to JScreen, a national nonprofit headquartered at Emory University’s Department of Human Genetics, everyone has genes that help prevent their bodies from developing cancer. If there is a harmful mutation in one of these genes, it will not work properly, significantly increasing the risk for cancer.

Guterman and Shmerling took the at-home comprehensive genetic test by JScreen. BRCA is more prevalent in people of Ashkenazi descent.

“I remember sitting on my bed, filling out the information about anyone in my family who had breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer. All the answers were no,” said Guterman, “So I did it and then went about my life, honestly.”

She was at the park with her daughter and husband when a call came in to let her know the BRCA-2 test was positive. She immediately called her parents.

“I don’t remember a lot of what she said because I was so in shock. I felt like she was wrong,” Guterman recalled.

Guterman’s mother refused to believe the news.

“I said, ‘There’s been a mix up. We don’t have a history of cancer in my family,’” said Shmerling, whose own test came back positive a few weeks later.

In September 2020, Shmerling had a double mastectomy and plastic surgery with implants. She was 62.

“Michelle saved my life,” she said.

Guterman waited to take action. She wanted another baby, which her doctor agreed was safe. Then she waited for her second daughter to turn two before going through with a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

After a four-hour surgery, Guterman remained under observation. She came home with two drains, one on each side, to help remove fluid. The first week was especially hard because the drains restricted her movement, and the pain was greater than she’d anticipated.

“I needed a lot of help. My husband is an absolute angel,” Guterman said. “The girls had a tough time. It was hard for them to see their mom go from being so active to not doing anything at all.”

Guterman admits she’s “pretty Type A.” To make recovery easier, she bought button up pajamas, a few pairs of sweatpants, a shower chair, a drain holder for the shower, and a mastectomy pillow. She found staying on a schedule for pain medication difficult, so her husband helped. Sleeping has been a challenge because she often can’t get comfortable.

Still, she would do it all over again.

“I want to be around for my girls and I would much rather have a mastectomy prophylactically than with chemo and radiation,” Guterman said.

Shmerling is deeply involved as a JScreen volunteer, stating, “I want to be an open book about it because I might be able to help somebody else.”

Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta

icon to expand image

Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta


Today’s story comes from our partner, Rough Draft Atlanta. Rough Draft publishes Reporter Newspapers, community newspapers in Brookhaven, Buckhead, Dunwoody, and Sandy Springs. Visit them online at or on Instagram @RoughDraftATL.

If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams via email at