Four out of five Swanson sisters have battled breast cancer. It is enough to test any family’s mettle - and these South Shore women have learned they have the strength to work through it.
Paula was the first. In August 2007, she learned the breast cancer she had been diagnosed with five years earlier had spread through her body.
Trisha was the second, receiving her diagnosis just a few weeks before Thanksgiving.
On Christmas Day, Debbie learned she had breast cancer. A year later, on April Fool’s Day, Lisa faced the same news.
Four out of five sisters - all battling breast cancer. It was enough to make any family break down, get angry and ask why.
They had their moments. But in their journey through “Cancer Land,” as one sister calls it, the Swanson sisters have found their strength as a family, focused on helping each other and grown collectively wise.
“When you see your family suffering with all this cancer it ends up being somewhat joyous, because you see family and friends giving back to each other,” said Trisha Bergeron, 52. “It just makes it kind of this wonderful experience - I know that sounds kind of funny.”
The sisters, four of whom go by their married names, had a mother who died from ovarian cancer at 67. An aunt on their mother’s side also had breast cancer.
After Bergeron was diagnosed, the five sisters decided to get tested for mutations in the genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which, if present, greatly increase the risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
Four out of five would learn they had the mutation. Gail Molla, who at 55 is the oldest of the sisters, did not. While that does not rule out cancer, it means she is not at high risk.
Marianne Murphy, a friend of the family, remembers the overwhelming feeling of watching one after another sister get diagnosed, before it could be attributed to genetics.
“It was just shocking to watch and wonder, where was this coming from,” she said. “Then I noticed with each time, they kind of bonded and rallied.”
The sisters, who live in towns across the South Shore, learned to take care of one another - driving each other to treatment, surprising each other with small gifts, helping with the bills, knowing when to step in and clean the house.
Bergeron worries that in some ways, Molla has carried the greatest burden.
“Gail has just been there every step of the way for all of us - not to mention her husband, Jack, who has been supportive of her not being at home, always with one of us,” she said. “I worry about how it affects her.”
Cancer - and the grueling treatment that accompanies it - has affected each sister differently.
It has hit Paula Swanson, the youngest sister, most aggressively. She has been weakening in the past year and has come to terms with the idea that cancer in the end will win.
But with her declining health, her wisdom and spirit has soared, the sisters say.
From Swanson, Bergeron said, she came to realize that you have to embrace cancer.
“It sounds weird - hugging cancer? - but you have to embrace it because it’s part of your life,” Bergeron said. “I have cancer; it’s in my body. Now I have to fight it so I can live.”
Bergeron finished treatment in July 2008. Deborah Ryan, the second oldest sister at 54, finished treatment that September. Lisa Eddy, 47, who moved up from Florida to help take care of Swanson, just finished her radiation.
Now the focus is on continued vigilance and prevention. The sisters have to decide whether to have their breasts and ovaries removed. It a decision their daughters, all in their 20s and early 30s, will also have to make if they test positive for the mutation.
There will no doubt be difficult roads ahead, but the sisters - and their families - have learned through this process.
“They’re like a machine - a well-oiled machine,” Murphy said. “They’re a team.”
Jennifer Mann may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE BREAST CANCER GENE
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors. Mutation of these genes has been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
A woman's risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Men with these mutations also have an increased risk of breast cancer.
Both men and women who have harmful mutations - which can be discovered through genetic testing - may be at increased risk of other cancers.
If a harmful mutation is found, several options are available to help a person manage their cancer risk, including regular screening, removal of the breasts and ovaries, and chemoprevention.
Source: National Cancer Institute
BREAST CANCER BLOG
Excerpts from Trisha Bergeron’s blog, in which she talks about life in a family of sisters with breast cancer. Visit www.tripletrisha.blogspot.com
Jan. 31, 2008:
Every day seems to be a new beginning on this journey through Cancer Land. Instead of being in a port in the Caribbean, like I have been for the past few years, I have a port in my right chest area. Instead of cruising the Caribbean, I will be cruising chemo. Swimming with exotic drugs like Taxotere and Cytoxin . . .
Feb. 6, 2008: I now know what to expect from chemo class, so the fear is gone. The excitement is now focused on my roller coaster ride.
I am prepared to take the ride and am well equipped with all of my safety gear and my wonderful support system . . . I can talk to my own friends and family about my ride and their very own roller coaster rides through life.
We've been on a lot of these rides together. Some fun, some not so fun. But we have hung on tight and have tried to be there for each other . . .
Feb. 11, 2008:
I wasn't responsible for naming my blog (Trisha’s Triple Tribulation). The credit goes to Joelle . . .The tribulation is applicable to all three sisters currently diagnosed with Breast Cancer. My oldest sister, Gail, once referred to Paula and I as the "Cancer Twins". Then Debbie was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and it became the "Cancer Triplets".
Please keep in mind that this reference is made in jest. Maintaining a sense of humor is what makes this experience unique for the "Swanson Girls".
Feb. 13, 2008:
Last September, Paula was getting her Port put in and I was with her in the post-op room. I took her hand and said, ìPaula, I wish I could be going through this instead of you.î She squeezed my hand and smiled. She clearly did not want anyone to go though this.
I think SOMEONE got my prayer a little mixed up. I SAID, I wanted the cancer INSTEAD of Paula!
Maybe I'm suppose to be going through this so that I can feel others’ pain and be blessed with an understanding of what others are enduring . . . or maybe I am suppose to enlighten others with my experience.
March 18, 2008:
I am writing this Blog in honor of my mother, Ruth J. Swanson who passed away nine years ago today after a long, stormy battle with Ovarian Cancer . . .My mother walked through many storms in her life.
She walked through the rain and the wind, just as I am doing now . . .
I know that I am not walking alone. My mother is helping me to hold my head up high and I am trying very hard to not be afraid of the dark.
April 3, 2008:
This past week I became quite the domestic dame. Not only did I do housework, but I actually did some grocery shopping and cooking. Monday I made Meatloaf. I made a Meatloaf for Gail, I made a Meatloaf for Paula, and I made a Meatloaf for Greg, Jenna and me.
Now you ask, “What about Debbie?” Debbie started chemo last week and right now her family and friends are on board. They are very attentive to her needs. I will come to Debbie's rescue when the crowd thins out, because sadly, eventually the novelty of cancer wears off. People jump ship. Not intentionally, but it happens.
April 11, 2008: Today it feels as though I was hit by a truck or better yet, like someone has thrown me against a wall . . . Lucky for me, Gail has planned a get-a-way for her sisters and for her daughter, Kristi. We are all flying to Florida on Monday. Destination: Daytona Beach.
Our primary goal is to get some much needed R&R . . . We are all in pretty tough shape: Paula having her palliative chemo, Debbie on her second round of chemo; Me, being post chemo. And then there's poor Kristi recovering from a back injury. Top that off with Gail who is exhausted from being our nurse, psychiatrist, and big sister. What a group!
However, I am quite certain that we will make the best of these five days.
April 30, 2008:
Yesterday... I had The Best conversation with Paula. I brought her the minestrone soup so that she could have it for supper. She was snug as a bug in a rug, under her covers, watching TV. We had a great conversation while she ate soup and I washed dishes.
Then I joined her on the bed and we talked more. Small talk and deep talk. Just my type of conversation. We talked of revelations that cancer has brought us. We talked of daughters. We talked of food and nausea. We talked and we laughed.
It is the worst of times; knowing that life will end too soon for my sister.
Happy thoughts...happy thoughts...
For now, life is good.
June 22, 2008: Life is Short. We've all said it. We all know it. Now it's time to act upon it! . . . Today my friend lost a loved one in a car accident, while another friend realized the importance of enjoying life.
My own life could be lost at any time. In five years my stupid cancer could return and I could die. Or, I could die in a car accident tomorrow.
Horrible thoughts, but sorry, they are there. In the meantime, I must try to enjoy life...NOW.
April 1, 2009:
Is anybody still out there? If so, take a breath...a nice, deep breath. I am sorry to say, that it is no longer a Triple Tribulation. It has Quadrupled.
Cancer has metastasized to the Fourth Sister...Lisa.
Lisa moved up from Florida to help care for Paula. She had been living with Paula until recently.
How stupid is this? I am numb. Lisa is exactly five years younger than me.
She is 47 years old and way too young to face this battle.
Lisa's life has been filled with many challenges, but I know that she can rise to this occasion and Conquer Cancer!
When Lisa found out she had Breast CA, she was still able to access her sense of humor. Lisa, with a giggle, said to me, "I caught it from Paula." So, what now brown cow? Where do we go from here? How do we muster up the energy to go through this...again?
Well, we're off to a good start. The sistas supported Lisa in her first visit with the surgeon. Gail, Debbie and I were there for Lisa and will be there for Lisa . . . always.
I will continue my journey through Cancer Land with my Birthday Buddy.