Sisters, cancer, genetic testing, and tough decisions

Sisters, cancer, genetic testing, and tough decisions

WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Most sisters do everything together. For one family of four daughters that was very true - church, shopping, dinners, and holidays. But - not to their choosing - cancer. Breast cancer hit a couple of the sisters. That prompted genetic testing and having to make tough decisions to take radical steps.

Four sisters - oldest to youngest - Iris, Hope, Shelah and Bridgett. They grew up in Timmonsville in Florence County.

"We were all just very close. Enjoyed one another's company. Church was big. That's where we spent a lot of time together,” says Bridgett Mitchell who is the youngest of the four.

Their bond of faith took on a new focus when they learned their oldest sister Iris, then 43 years old, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Hope Simon the second oldest sister asked, "Is she going to be okay? Is she coping with it well? How's her husband taking it? And how are the children handling it?"

"Our focus was mainly helping her get through it, making sure she was taken care of, and that she was mentally, emotionally and physically okay, said Bridgett."

Iris underwent genetic testing to look for a BRCA gene mutation. Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. It's when there's an inherited mutation in one or both of these genes that the risk of breast cancer increases. Thankfully, Iris's test came back negative.

"So they felt we didn't need to and that kind of gave us some false reassurance at that time,” said Bridgett.

But down the road, the sisters faced yet more disappointing news. Bridgett, then 39, also was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Hope thought, "Oh, Lord, am I next? Am I next?"

After Bridgett was diagnosed with her cancer, she did the blood draw for genetic testing. And she did have the BRCA gene mutation. Iris and Bridgett had both had double mastectomies. Bridgett - because of having the mutation - also had a hysterectomy and her ovaries removed to prevent other possible female cancers.

So then Hope did genetic testing. That test also came back positive for the gene mutation. Though not diagnosed with cancer, Hope worked through the difficult choice to have her breasts removed. She also underwent a hysterectomy and had her ovaries removed.

"I've had people say, coworkers say, not to do it that, you know, you're 48 years old. You've gone this long without it you'll be okay," said Hope.

Dr. Steven Madden of Lexington Oncology at Lexington Medical Center says genetic testing is becoming more widespread now. And testing positive doesn't always mean having to have radical surgery.

"There are lifestyle modifications, there are more frequent screening examinations we can do to monitor those patients closely. There occasionally is medication that we can use to help reduce the risk but it's not a 100% situation that you have to pursue prophylactic surgery, but I do think that most women tend to choose that and it is a very reasonable approach," he says.

But Dr. Madden adds that in this particular genetic mutation because the incidence is so much higher of developing breast cancer, the radical steps the sisters took are often times recommended.

Both women have no regrets.

"I didn't want it to get to the point where I regretted not doing something that I could have to prevent it from reoccurring,” said Bridgett.

"With the knowledge that I have, it helped me to make the decisions I made and I would do it all over again,” said Hope.

Hope’s daughter was already tested. Thankfully, she doesn’t have the gene mutation. Bridgett’s daughter is too young to be tested, but Bridgett said she’ll insist her daughter undergo the blood test once she’s old enough.

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