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The three sisters Terri Wheeler, Beth Yates and Mary Friess couldn’t deny their relationship, even if they wanted to.
“We’re alike in so many ways,” Friess said. All three sisters grew up in St. Mary’s County and still live here Wheeler in Clements, Yates in Leonardtown and Friess in Mechanicsville. All three have a positive outlook on life, a good sense of humor, similar values and all love to read, Friess said.
They look alike, too. In fact, when they were growing up, their mother used to dress the two younger sisters, Yates and Friess the same way, and people thought they were twins.
The three sisters also share a less positive trait.
They inherited the BRCA1 gene, probably from their father’s side of the family. The gene makes them predisposed to developing breast cancer. Those with the BRCA1 gene are five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not have the gene, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. So, while appoximately 12 percent of women in the general population will be expected to develop breast cancer sometime during their lives, those with the BRCA1 gene have a 60 percent chance of developing the disease.
Those are odds that the three sisters haven’t been able to beat. Since 1997, all three sisters have been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone treatment.
Friess, the youngest, was the first to get the disease in 1997 at age 31, and it returned in 2008 as stage IV breast cancer that metastasized to her bone. She now goes in and out of remission, she said.
After Friess’ diagnosis, the other two sisters began getting regular mammograms. It was those mammograms that led to a very early diagnosis of the disease both for Wheeler in 2007 and Yates in 2009.
“I was having no signs or symptoms,” Yates said, noting that the importance of the mammograms. “I couldn’t feel it.”
Yates was the first of the sisters to get genetic testing. It only involves a blood test, but an expensive one, costing $3,000, she said. Because of the family’s history, however, insurance paid for the test. The other two sisters then underwent testing, and all three were found to have the BRCA1 gene.
They have all three had mastectomies in addition to any chemotherapy and radiation treatment required for their cancers. Their genetic predisposition means that a recurrance of the cancer is far more likely. So even with the mastectomies, all three are regular patients at their oncologists.
The disease has changed their lives in other ways, too. All three sisters donate their time to help with Relay For Life, the annual event that raises money for the American Cancer Society.
It was through her work with Relay For Life that Wheeler learned a committee was being formed to organize the first Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Southern Maryland.
This is the 20th anniversary nationally of Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, benefit walks that raise funds for the American Cancer Society’s program related to breast cancer. But this will be the first year that a Making Strides walk will take place in Southern Maryland.
The inaugural four-mile, noncompetitive walk will be held Oct. 7, starting at the Wildewood shopping center in California. The walk is designed to raise awareness and funds to help end breast cancer by supporting the society’s efforts to find cures and support programs and services for people facing the disease. More than 270 Making Strides walks will be held across the country this October.
Making Strides “is the only walk or activity that ACS does for one specific cancer,” Wheeler said. She and Yates signed up to help right away. Friess soon followed. The sisters formed a team called Bracatude for the event.
“I got involved with Relay and especially Strides because I have received so much support,” Wheeler said.
She has participated in Look Good, Feel Better, an ACS program offered at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital.
“We’ve all been to [ACS] support groups,” Wheeler said. “You wouldn’t have any of those opportunities without funding from the American Cancer Society ... Knowing that I carry this gene? If there’s any way we can bring in more funding or more support ... ”
Organizers of the local Making Strides walk have a goal of raising at least $20,000 at this first event. But the sisters noted that they hoped the event will raise twice that amount.
“I would dearly love in my lifetime for them to find a way to reverse the effects of these gene ... or to reduce your chances without going through those major surguries ... so no one else has to hear those words [that they have cancer] at such a young age. Just trying to help make a difference,” Wheeler said.
“We went through this for a reason,” Yates said. “If we can help someone down the road, I’m all for it.”
In addition to sharing the BRAC1 gene and similar values and similar looks, the three sisters are also alike in what they’ve taken away from their experience with cancer. Not only are all three interested in helping work toward a cure and help for others, but they all came through with a keener appreciation for life.
“People my age sometimes hate getting older,” Wheeler said, who is 56. “But I’m OK having every birthday ... There’s very little I take for granted.”
“It’s life-altering for a doctor to say to you, ‘you have cancer,’” Yates said. “It’s made me appreciate life a lot more ... appreciate every morning I wake up.”
“When you get a diagnosis of cancer, sure, you just want to crawl into your bed and be cancer,” Friess said. “I refuse to do that. I’m going to live my life to the fullest. Just because you have cancer, doesn’t mean you have to give up. There’s always hope.”
Tonight, Oct. 5, Leonardtown’s First Friday celebration will be “Pink Friday” in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Some business proceeds and collections will be taken to go toward Bracatude, the team of sisters who are all breast cancer survivors involved in the Oct. 7 Making Strides walk in California. Bracatude will participate in a meet-and-greet along with the American Cancer Society and Health Connections from MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital on the square. All visitors are encouraged to dress in pink. For more, see www.leonardtownfirstfridays.com.
The American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer four-mile, noncompetitive walk will be held Oct. 7, starting at the Wildewood shopping center in California. Registration for the local event begins at 8 a.m.; the walk begins at 9 a.m. Sign up for the walk by calling 410-721-4304 or visit www.makingstrides.org/somd.