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Add "curing cancer" to the long list of good deeds sisters do for each other: The Sister Study, a groundbreaking 10-year research project conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is tracking 45,000 siblings, ages 35 to 74, affected by breast cancer. The goal: to find out how the environment and genetics determine who is getting sick. Meet some of the women who are bringing us closer to a cure.
Molly Champion Bobrow, 44, Houston, with sisters Sandra Champion Torres, 45, and Brenda Champion Pattillo, 45
When Molly Champion Bobrow brushed her fingers across her breast and felt a small lump 11 years ago, at age 33, she wasn't especially worried. She had no family history of breast cancer, and she knew most sufferers (87 percent, to be exact) were over 40. So it stood to reason that Molly, one third of the Houston-based Champion Sisters pop and jazz singing group, couldn't imagine breast cancer happening to her.
At the urging of her older sisters, twins Brenda and Sandra, Molly saw her ob-gyn -- who immediately scheduled her for a lumpectomy. The diagnosis: stage I medullary breast cancer, meaning the cancer hadn't spread beyond the breast tissue. Despite catching it early, "I couldn't stop crying," says Molly. "My husband and I were about to start a family. I was devastated." She did manage to find solace in her sisters, though: Brenda and Sandra were by her side for every step of treatment. With just one year and three days separating the women in age, "we're more like triplets," says Molly. After chemotherapy and radiation, she was deemed cancer-free in 1998. But during a routine mammogram seven years later, doctors found a new lump -- this time it was stage I invasive ductal cell carcinoma. Because she did not want to risk going through a third bout of the disease, Molly made the tough decision to get a double mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery.
"This time, Molly's attitude was, 'I've done this before and I can do it again. This will not beat me,'" remembers Brenda. After recovering from the procedure, Molly sang with her sisters in every show they'd booked that year -- including one at a Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. That's where the trio heard about the Sister Study, and they signed on immediately. Since Molly had already found out that she didn't have the mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that are linked to breast cancer, all of the sisters were baffled by the cause, says Sandra, who, like Brenda, is now diligent about getting regular mammograms (recommended annually for all women over 40).
Although she no longer has cancer, Molly can't have children due to the effects of chemotherapy. She does, however, feel like a second mother to her nieces and nephews. She speaks about her experience at events for the Young Survival Coalition, an organization that supports education and research for breast cancer in women under 40. "Molly has been a role model and inspiration to so many people. She has no idea how many women she's given hope to," says Brenda. "With the Sister Study, I want to do my part."
Karen Eubanks Jackson, 65, Houston, with sister Kim Kirkland, 48, Bowie, Maryland
Cancer was a disease with which Karen Eubanks Jackson was intimately familiar long before she found a pebble-size mass in her breast during a self-exam in 1993. An aunt and a great-aunt had died of breast cancer, and Karen's mother and one of Karen's sisters were cancer survivors. And yet, after an ultrasound and needle biopsy revealed that the lump was indeed cancer -- stage II invasive ductal carcinoma -- she was in denial. "I immediately felt disconnected from my body, a sort of numbness," she says.
After having a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, Karen realized that women need better ways to cope with a breast cancer diagnosis. Even though African-American women are 12 percent less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than Caucasian women, they're more likely to die from it. "But there's just not enough talk about breast cancer in our community," says Karen. So she founded Sisters Network, Inc., the only national breast cancer-survivor organization for African Americans in the U.S. It hosts events where survivors can share information about the disease and strategies for preventing and treating it.
Karen's sister, Kim, is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Sisters Network. Kim helps plan the group's annual meeting and attends conferences about breast cancer research. When Karen heard about the Sister Study through her work, it didn't take much encouragement to get Kim involved. "I was only 2 years old when Karen left for college, but she's always been my best friend," says Kim, who also credits her older sister -- now cancer-free -- with making sure she gets both regular exams at hospitals that have a strong reputation in the field of breast cancer and second opinions if she has any concerns. "I'm so proud of how she's turned what could have been a tragedy into something that is helping other women," Kim says. "Because of the Sister Study, we are constantly talking about new programs, research, and advancements. It gives both of us so much pleasure to help."
For more information about the Sisters Network, visit sistersnetworkinc.org or call 866-781-1808.
Cynthia Suarez, 50, Weston, Florida; Brenda Leon, 57, Lima, Peru; Tania Delgado, 39, San Jose, Costa Rica; Claudia Gonzales, 42, Aurora, Illinois; and Vivian Vidal, 45, Lima, Peru
Cynthia Suarez can barely remember a time when cancer wasn't part of her life. In 1982, Brenda, the oldest of six sisters, was diagnosed with carcinoma in situ (cancer confined to the immediate area of the breast tissue in which it began). The then 31-year-old mother of two had a mastectomy but required no further treatment. But in 1989, Cynthia's father died of prostate cancer, and five years later, her mother died from endometrial cancer. In 2002, Cynthia's youngest sister Tania -- 33 at the time -- learned she had stage III breast carcinoma in situ. "It was the worst sort of deja vu," says Cynthia.
In addition to a mastectomy, Tania underwent chemo, had periodic injections of the cancer-fighting drug Zoladex, and took the drug tamoxifen until early 2007, when a test found no more cancer in her body. Still, Cynthia admits it was hard not to have a "who's next?" outlook. But optimism soon came in the form of a Sister Study brochure Cynthia picked up.
"When I signed up with my sisters and starting going through the questionnaire, it really made us wonder about things in our environment that may be harmful," says Cynthia, who speculates about a possible connection between the use of pesticides around her childhood home back in Peru and her family's high rate of cancer. For now, she controls what she can: She has regular mammograms, exercises often, and eats a low-fat diet to try to maintain a healthy weight (obesity is linked with higher risk). She also checks in frequently with the Sister Study Web site and eagerly awaits the next round of tests and questions. "I truly believe this will provide the knowledge needed to stop breast cancer so that no more sisters -- or daughters, nieces, and future granddaughters -- will have to suffer," she says.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2008.