Sisters fight aggressive HER2-positive breast cancer

Sisters Melanie McWilliam and Lyndsay Winter
Sisters Melanie McWilliam and Lyndsay Winter
Photo supplied

When sisters Melanie McWilliam and Lyndsay Winter were diagnosed with aggressive HER2-positive breast cancer within a year of each other, they knew they would need to fight with their all.

Although they both knew that their risk of developing breast cancer was increased due to both their mother and their great-aunt having had the disease, it still came as a shock.

One in 4 women diagnosed with breast cancer will be HER2-positive. Even though it is one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer, it can be treated with HER2-targeted therapy, which both sisters received as part of their treatment plan.

“You never think something like this is going to happen to you especially since I went every year for mammograms and did everything a woman is supposed to do from about 40 onwards…” says Melanie.

Swollen gland

In 2007, Melanie found a small lump under her arm, but it turned out to be a swollen gland. She went for a mammogram anyway, and the doctors found some calcifications but Melanie was reassured that everything was fine. Ten months later, however, her lump had become swollen again. After another mammogram, it was clear something was wrong. The calcifications had spread and she was told she needed a biopsy as soon as possible.

Melanie went for this biopsy on the Friday and had to wait the whole weekend for the results. On the Monday, she heard the news. She had breast cancer and it was HER2-positive. “It just sort of throws you right out and right from that minute, your life changes,” Melanie says.

Her treatment options were few and far between. She had to undergo right breast mastectomy, eight chemotherapy sessions and five weeks of radiation. To add to this, in order to battle her HER2-positive cancer, she also had to undergo nine weeks of HER2-targeted therapy, also known as biological therapy.

The support she received from her family and friends, but particularly her sister Lyndsay helped her get back onto her feet. “Their support was unwavering. You can’t do it without a support base like I had,” she says.

Her brother-in-law had also battled cancer the year before.  So when her sister Lyndsay was diagnosed barely a year later to the day, it was clear at that point that it runs in the family.

Lyndsay’s husband gave Melanie one piece of advice that she has held onto – “you are going to feel terrible, but you are going to feel better”. And this proved to be so true.

One day at a time

When Lyndsay was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, she wasn’t afraid of what it might mean. She had watched her sister go through it and survive and supported her husband through his cancer and survive. It gave her the strength to face it head on. It also kept her focussed – taking one day at a time, Lyndsay was able to get through the diagnosis and treatment process, which included one year of HER2-targeted therapy. Her journey has made her want to remind other women of their strength. She’s sharing her story as she wants to encourage women to take responsibility for their breast health.

“Breast cancer is manageable. Some of the doctors even say that it’s curable – if you detect it early. So, your self-checks, your mammograms, your ultrasounds, your general awareness of what’s happening on the breast cancer front is vitally important,” she insists. She adds, “don’t just leave it up to the professionals to manage your health. Be aware and take responsibility.”

Lyndsay also believes very strongly in finding doctors and specialists who can accommodate and answer questions about your type of breast cancer, and provide different treatment options. “Find what’s right for you,” she suggests.

Early diagnosis key

Getting over the fear of cancer and the side effects of the treatment is the first step to a good cancer prognosis. This means becoming aware of the information available, and taking the first step to getting tested.

“Far too often I hear that women don’t go for their mammograms because they feel it’s just too uncomfortable. This is scary. These procedures can help you detect the disease early and save your life. If you don’t want to go for a mammogram, go for a sonogram,” says Lindsay.

“I’m much stronger than I thought. Everyone has the strength within them, but they need to find it,” she points out.

This is exactly why Be Cancer Aware has launched the Think beyond Pink initiative which  encourages women to empower themselves to find out their type of breast cancer so they can ask the right questions and get the correct diagnosis, tests and treatment.

One in 29 women will develop breast cancer in South Africa, but thankfully it is also one of the most well studied cancer types. Research has shown that if diagnosed early it can increase the chances of successful treatment.

In promoting the Think beyond Pink initiative, special HER2 ribbons have been created. They are pink and orange, with the pink referring to breast cancer, and the orange to encourage finding out your HER2 status.

About HER2-positive breast cancer

A variety of growth factors are produced naturally by our bodies and, as with hormones, have an influence on how our cells behave. HER2 is a receptor that is found on the surface of many cells and is involved in the cell’s response to the presence of certain growth factors.

In some breast cancer cells, there are an abnormally high number of HER2 receptors, which can cause these cells to divide and proliferate more rapidy – these are known as HER2-positive cells. Up to 30% of women with breast cancer have HER2-positive disease.

HER2-positive breast cancer is a distinct form of the disease that demands special and immediate attention because HER2-positive tumours are fast growing. For this reason, it is essential that HER2 status is identified as soon as a woman first discovers she has breast cancer and not delayed until recurrence or when the disease has progressed.

Be Cancer Aware press release

- (Health24, October 2012)

Read more:

Warning signs of breast cancer
Breast cancer vaccine may work
Reasons to go for a mammogram
How to do a breast self-examination

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