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Health & Wellness

My Sister’s Breast Cancer Diagnosis and What It Meant for Me

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It was around 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and I had just sat down to fold some laundry.

My phone rang – it was my sister calling from Arizona.  “Finally!” I thought to myself. I had been trying to get a hold of her for some time and she hadn’t been returning my calls. We are both busy, working, raising kids and there’s about a three hour time difference between us, so generally life gets in the way. However, while we don’t talk as much as we’d both like, it had been an abnormally long period, even for us. 

I was about to give her a little grief for going dark on me, but the minute she said hello, I knew something was wrong. “Is Casey home?” she asked – referring to my husband.  He wasn’t and the kids were asleep. “Okay,” was all she replied. 

Nothing could have prepared me for what she was about to tell me.

Less than two months prior, my sister had been diagnosed with Stage 3b breast cancer. It all started to get a bit technical and clinical here, but what’s important to know is that it was invasive and her tumor was growing at an alarming rate. 

“She’s 45 years old – a wife, a mother.  She’s my sister! This. Could. Not. Be. Happening,” I thought to myself. I took a deep breath. “You are the strongest person I know and you are going to get through this,” I said to her. “We are going to get through this.” 

A million other thoughts were racing around my head: How serious is this? It’s treatable, right? Is she going to have to have chemo? Will she lose her hair? Will she get to keep her breasts? Why hadn’t she called me sooner? How could she have kept this from me for so long?

As we talked I learned it was treatable, she was going to start chemo immediately and surgery, as well as radiation was in the plan. As for not calling sooner, I soon understood why. 

“I’ve tried to call you so many times, but I just couldn’t go through with it,” she said. “All I’ve been able to think about since being diagnosed is ‘what if my little sister gets it too?’” 

Here she is going through the most horrific experience of her life, and she’s thinking about me and the possibility of us sharing the same genetic mutation. I was momentarily dumbfounded.

What she meant was that some breast cancers are hereditary – caused by genes with mutations, or changes, passed down from either parent to their daughters or sons.  There is also a 50 percent chance that first-degree relatives – children, siblings and a parent of a person who carries a gene mutation – have the same mutated gene, increasing their risk of getting breast or other types of cancer.1

This fact – as it turns out – was the reason that calling to tell me about her own diagnosis was one of the hardest conversations she has ever had.

Yet, in a strange way, for me it meant I didn’t have to feel helpless. I could actually do something. I could get tested, and even if just for a moment, I could try to put her mind at ease. 

I called my OBGYN the very next day. We scheduled a mammogram and talked at length about genetic testing – not only for my sister, but for myself – specifically genetic mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 , which are the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer.

Admittedly, going into it, I was pretty convinced one or both of us would test positive for the inherited mutation given the present risk factors (diagnosed with breast cancer before 50, heritage – we’re of Hispanic descent – and family history given that several family members previously have had cancer). 

What I don’t think either of us was prepared for was both of our tests coming back negative.

While the results felt like one small victory, it has given our family a lot of comfort and I’m grateful every day that my sister had the courage to have that conversation with me. 

For now, we can focus on the most important task at hand – helping my sister overcome the fight of her life.

Understanding the Emotional Impact of Hereditary Breast Cancer

It is important to know if breast cancer is hereditary because it can help people living with breast cancer take control of emotional considerations, including :

  • If, when and how to share genetic test results with loved ones
  • Whether or not to encourage family members to be tested
  • Anxiety about the potential health and emotional impact on family

Speaking with a genetic counselor, doctor, or nurse navigator can help people with breast cancer make decisions about genetic testing. These individuals can also help people who test positive for hereditary mutations feel empowered, cope with the results and decide on a treatment plan.

Learn more about hereditary breast cancer and the importance of genetic testing at www.StoryHalfTold.com

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