TEANECK, N.J. -- They are a close, extended family of sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, sharing vacations and holidays, burdens and joys. However, they also share a more serious trait: an expansive history of cancer. In just one year, one sister was diagnosed with uterine cancer and an aunt and cousin each had breast cancer. That one cousin’s diagnosis, occurring at a young age and with a particular type of breast cancer known to run in families, triggered action by the rest of the clan.
“Despite the fact that we have this gene – I feel so lucky,” Ellen Kelly, 64, said. “I would have never known I had uterine cancer if I didn’t go through the screenings and get tested."
The family’s saga began with a phone call from their cousin, Nancy O’Sullivan, to Ellen. Nancy had been diagnosed with breast cancer and thought her cousins should consider getting tested. Ellen’s grandmother died of ovarian cancer and her mother had breast cancer early in her life, but both died before testing was available.
Ellen shared Nancy’s warning with her relatives and they each received a family medical history. However, they promptly stuffed the documents into far-flung corners of their homes, hoping to ignore them. “I didn’t want any part of this – I didn’t want to be tested, I didn’t want to know if I had the bad gene,” said Diane Gannon, Ellen’s sister and human resources partner at Holy Name Medical Center. “I felt like it would be the beginning of the end if it was positive – that it would be a death sentence.”
Julie Canavatchel, Ellen’s daughter, put the report into a little-used desk drawer, removing it from her sight and her mind. However, deep down, they all knew screening could potentially save their lives. Ultimately, 11 family members agreed to undergo testing. Six results came back positive.
“As bad as it was to find out, at least you could do something about it,” Ellen said. “If we didn’t get tested, we would always be thinking about it in the back of our minds.”
In some cases, hearing the results were ghastly. Ellen, who tested positive for uterine cancer, was being wheeled into surgery when Julie, 42, got the call from the genetic counselor saying that she was positive. “That was just horrible,” said Julie. “My mom was going in for surgery for uterine cancer and we were all there – everyone was crying."
Pat Butler, Ellen and Diane’s aunt, was more open to getting screened. “Once I found out I was positive I was really careful about getting my mammograms,” Pat said. “In May, I found out I had breast cancer. If I didn’t get tested, I might have skipped it this year.”
In addition to the support they’ve given each other, all four women credit Dr. Sharyn Lewin with potentially saving their lives. Lewin, Holy Name Medical Center’s medical director of gynecologic oncology, performed all four surgeries and offered support and guidance well after the procedures had been completed.
“Dr. Lewin is absolutely a doll,” Pat said. “Besides being a good surgeon she assured me that everything was going to be all right and calmed me down. She made me feel like I was part of her family.”
“We’ve always been close but now we’ve lived through this and shared something so important, it’s made us even closer,” Diane said. “We joke that this is what our mom and grandmother had to leave us – a damaged gene. They couldn’t leave us a million dollars? Before the surgery, I felt like a ticking time bomb. Now I feel like a whole woman and I can say I’m cancer free.”