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Sisters and Survivors: How Siblings with Cancer Can Help Us Find a Cure

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"We don't want another one of us to get cancer."

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.


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