Jerry Davich: Three sisters, same diagnosis — hope
Jerry Davich email@example.com September 22, 2012 8:54PM
Sisters Kay Ramirez, left, and Karen Giordano photographed in Chesterton Thursday Sept. 20, 2012. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
The Phipps sisters offer sage advice to other women:
Don’t put off scheduling a mammogram. “It’s not a pleasant experience but it’s essential.”
Don’t neglect self-checks. “As Karen can testify, much can happen in between mammograms.”
Don’t put off doing something nice for a breast cancer battler. Make that phone call. Send that card. Write that email. “You can’t even imagine the amazing positive healing effects these small actions have.”
Finally, take part and donate to fundraising efforts by organizations that fund continued cancer research and mammograms for those less fortunate.
Updated: November 8, 2012 10:01AM
Karen Phipps Giordano was diagnosed with breast cancer just after her 46th birthday, in November 2010.
Mary Kay Phipps Ramirez was diagnosed with breast cancer one week before her 50th birthday, in January 2011.
Jane Phipps Bell was diagnosed a month before her 56th birthday, in November 2011.
What are the odds that three sisters, out of five, could be diagnosed with the same deadly disease within a year? And, here’s the kicker, with no obvious genetic link?
“It’s not genetic,” explained Giordano, of Chesterton, the youngest of the five sisters. “All of the genetic tests were negative.”
“We kept asking ourselves the same questions. How could this happen to three members in the same family within a year span?” asked Ramirez, of Munster.
Statistics show that one in eight women has or had breast cancer.
“We beat those odds hands down. Could we be that lucky?” asked Ramirez, referring to their collective situation before November 2010.
While waiting for her test results, Ramirez had convinced herself she had a benign breast tumor.
“How could two sisters within months of each other have the same horrible disease?” she asked. “My coping mechanism was to rationalize the only acceptable outcome — a noncancerous tumor.” Her rationalization, and her hopes, were dashed.
When Bell first heard the news about her sisters, she was devastated.
“I didn’t even know we had family history until we found out that our paternal grandmother had breast cancer,” Bell said. “When Mary Kay found out she had breast cancer a couple months later, I was in disbelief. I just couldn’t believe that it had hit our family again.”
After several tests near her home in Magnolia, Texas — mammogram, ultrasound, MRI and biopsy — Bell kept thinking, this couldn’t happen again, could it?
“Well, it did,” she told me.
Since then, the sisters have been searching for answers, or a key answer, to explain the freaky anomaly.
“Was it something we were exposed to when we were young? Was it the steel mills? Was it the land our subdivision was built on?” asked Giordano, echoing her sisters’ thoughts.
But then why were only three of the five sisters affected? And it can’t be recent environmental exposure because four of the sisters live in different states, they say.
“The only thing that made any kind of sense to us was that Karen, Janie and I are more genetically similar to my father, whose mother had breast cancer,” Ramirez reasoned.
Their only conclusion is that some unknown genetic mutation is lurking in their DNA that researchers haven’t discovered yet.
“Some of the doctors we’ve consulted think so,” Giordano explained last week, a day after receiving another chemotherapy treatment.
Oh, yes, I forgot to note that Giordano’s breast cancer returned in May. This time, however, it had metastasized outside of the breast.
‘Phight Like a Phipps Girl’
The two sisters who are cancer-free, Laura Phipps Ryan and Nancy Phipps Sternberg, can’t help but wonder about their future. Wouldn’t you, considering their sibling circumstance?
Both are vigilant with self-checks and testing, which has become the sisters’ new crusade for other women.
Next month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the sisters hope their unique story will touch other women “who still don’t believe in monthly self-checks and annual screenings,” they say.
“This is a true story that unfortunately we are living right now, but we are here to tell it because of early detection,” Giordano said.
Last year alone, roughly 40,000 women in this country died from breast cancer, even though death rates have been decreasing since 1990. That death-rate dip is largely attributed to earlier detection, increased awareness and treatment advances, experts say.
“All three of our initial cancers were found by mammograms and self-checks. All three of our cancers were found in the early stages,” Giordano said. “We hope that others will be vigilant with medical screening and self-checks to find it and treat it in the early stages.”
To date, there are more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, including the three sisters. Their similar diagnosis has led to a similar prognosis.
“Hope has a new meaning for our family these days,” Giordano said. “It doesn’t happen on certain occasions anymore. It is constant. Every day. Every night. While driving, working, eating, praying, living.”
“This is the story of the Phipps family that, up until November 2010, didn’t have too many struggles, and didn’t wear pink on a regular basis,” she said.
These days, they wear pink everywhere, from ribbons and hats to shirts and shoelaces.
“This dreaded disease has brought our family closer,” Giordano said.
Their ground zero for hope, they agree, is their mother, 82-year-old Joyce Phipps Nutt, of Crown Point. She has endured more than any mother should ever have to experience in such a short time span, they say.
“To add to her heartache, in the midst of our battles, she became a widow in 2011, unexpectedly saying goodbye to the love of her life,” Giordano said.
Nutt has obviously passed down her most distinctive traits to her daughters, her strength, her determination, and her attitude of never giving up.
“That’s how we came up with our family slogan — Phight Like a Phipps Girl,” said Giordano, noting the strength of her husband, John, through her ordeal.
“My husband has been there with me from the start of all of this,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to focus my efforts on healing and hoping if it weren’t for him.”
Today, the sisters’ hope for many things: First and foremost, hope for a cure. On a grander scale, hope for miracles. In the meantime, hope for answers — for them, for their daughters, for other survivors of both genders. They even have created their own Facebook page, www.facebook.com/PhightLikeAPhippsGirl, to help inspire and inform others .
“We were all close before this happened,” said Nancy Phipps Sternberg, of Cleveland, who decided to be proactive about her situation and have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy. “But now the phone calls and texts are more frequent and have taken on a more deeper intimate tone.”
Laura Phipps Ryan added, “We realize that what we have is a gift and we pray that each and every day brings us close to a cure. I am blessed to call these four women my sisters.”
Find more of Jerry’s writings on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and jerrydavich.wordpress.com.