Beating cancer as a family through ups and downs

Kate Wehlann, Staff Writer

When you know you’re at risk for something, you make sure you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do to avoid it. Fair skin, hair and eyes? You make sure you wear sunscreen. At risk for diabetes? You watch your weight and follow a healthy diet. At risk for breast cancer? You get your mammograms.

That’s what Kathy Norris did. She ate right, exercised, didn’t smoke, never missed her regular mammograms. She began getting them fairly early, due to a high occurrence among the women in her family. All of her mother’s sisters had died of breast or ovarian cancer. Her grandmother had died of ovarian cancer. Her sister, Tami Graves, had been diagnosed with breast cancer twice. 

She did everything she was supposed to. Still, they found something on the scans. They performed a biopsy and received confirmation: breast cancer. Stage 1.

“It was like a death sentence,” said Norris. “Any time someone says ‘cancer,’ your first thought is ‘death.’ It just seems like it’s a death sentence. In the moment, you just think the worst of the worst.”

“I’m a mama’s girl, so that was kind of hard,” said Norris’s daughter, Whitney Smith. “My mom is never sick. I think I’ve seen my mother with the flu once in my lifetime, so for her to get sick with the c-word, cancer, that’s so big. It was hard to see her not up and going and even though she didn’t need to do treatments, there were still a lot of surgeries, so she was down a lot and I was not used to that. My mom was always healthy. For her to get cancer, it was a hard hit.”

Norris went to the James Brown Cancer Center, the same place her sister went after her diagnosis. Thankfully, and largely due to her regular mammograms, the tumor was caught early and easily treatable.

“Since my sister had it twice and we were premenopausal, it made them think it could be genetic,” she said. “We found out we have the BRAC-2 gene.”

Six months after Norris was diagnosed, her mother, 72 at the time, was diagnosed with the same type of cancer. Six months after her surgery to remove one breast, doctors discovered a HERS-2 breast cancer tumor in her scar. HERS-2 is a more severe form of breast cancer, but thankfully, she went through treatments and pulled through.

Smith said, despite the prevalence of breast cancer in her family, she didn’t know a whole lot about it before her mother’s diagnosis.

“It wasn’t something we had at home,” she said. “We knew a little bit, but we didn’t know as much as we thought we did.”

Norris said the women in her family underwent genetic testing when her daughter and niece were about 18. She, her two sisters, mother, daughter and niece all had the BRAC-2 gene.

“My sister, Tami, has two daughters. One daughter had it and one didn’t. You have a 50-50 chance. One had it and got breast cancer, even though she was going for her mammograms. She had a duct swell and it was this big,” she said, holding up her hands to show a space a bit bigger than a golf ball. “I thought, ‘This girl’s dead. It’s breast cancer and Stage 10.’ Come to find out, it was just an enlarged duct, but when they went in and looked, they found Stage 2 breast cancer behind it. She was lucky that duct had swollen up.”

Initially, Smith said she didn’t want to know whether she had the gene. 

“I thought I would focus on it too much and that would be the only thing I would think about,” she said. “I’d think I had a lump when I didn’t and just exaggerate it in my brain to where I would worry myself to death. Then, after going through everything with the doctors, I found out I had to know if I had the gene or not in order to have these preventative procedures done. I had to have that on my record. When I knew, I could have those checks and it really wasn’t as scary as I thought. They told me I had to start having my checks earlier and have more intensive testing done instead of just a pap smear or mammograms. I had MRIs done instead of mammograms because I was so young.”

Read the rest of this feature, as well as more stories about breast cancer in the Breast Cancer special section in today's paper.


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