Throughout her childhood, East Mansfield resident Linda Wallace and her younger sister, MaryAnn McCaslin of Dedham, had the usual sibling rivalry. Only 20 months apart in age, Wallace said they each wanted what the other one had.
“We’ve always been very competitive,” Wallace said over coffee, on her 28th wedding anniversary.
But they never expected what they actually would end up sharing as adults — breast cancer.
Wallace brought with her to the coffee shop a photograph of herself, her sister, and a group of cousins who had taken a trip to Anguilla in October 2009. In the photo the women are smiling for the camera, tan from the late summer sun and dressed in the colors of the tropics. No one would know that one of them already carried the dreaded secret, and another would get similar news by spring.
“She told me on the ferry,” Wallace said of the news from her younger sister, MaryAnn.
The diagnosis was invasive tubular breast cancer, found in a routine mammogram with a follow-up biopsy. McCaslin, then 51, was operated on right before Christmas, and underwent both surgery and radiation.
Wallace suffered through it all with her sister, little knowing she would be in the same position the following May.
Wallace’s cancer — micro-invasive ductal carcinoma — is paradoxically not even related to McCaslin’s, and again was found by a mammogram. Neither woman had any symptoms, or any history in the immediate family that would have warned of the oncoming crisis.
“We did everything right,” Wallace said — diet, exercise, avoiding too much alcohol, breastfeeding their babies. The physicians have deduced the whole thing could be a freak coincidence.
Both sisters were treated only months apart at Faulkner Hospital, where the mammogram center is named for the groundbreaking cancer physician Susan Love, the first female surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital and the founder of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Love authored one of the most well-known books ever published on the topic of breast health, “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book.”
Wallace remembers long sessions in the waiting room of the mammogram center.
“You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was just sitting, not even looking at each other,” she said.
But overall Wallace said she was pleased with her treatment, and her surgeon.
“They were wonderful at Faulkner,” she said, even though she was forced to go back for a second surgery shortly after the first because scans showed the margins around the excised cancer were not wide enough.
Wallace’s greatest fear, something that will ring true with many diagnosed in mid-life, was that she would not live to see grandchildren. Wallace has three children, one at home, one at college, and one across the country in Colorado. Two are boys; her youngest, a daughter, was in Scotland studying at the time she was diagnosed, and Wallace said she took it especially hard because she was so far away.
But her sons and her husband, though they express it differently, have also had to live with the realization of mortality that the struggles of both Wallace and McCaslin have brought to the family. No one can shield family members from the impact of the shock, both from the initial diagnosis and the following treatment regimen, Wallace said, but she also has seen the whole family grow closer together because of the way everyone now sees the world.
“It makes you appreciate everything,” she said.
It was a long hot summer for her, with radiation five days out of seven for seven weeks. Luckily, a new radiation facility, Shields Oncology, is located right on Route 106 in Mansfield, and Wallace was spared daily trips to Boston and back. But the treatment itself has some unpleasant side effects, and the time spent alone in a room with a giant machine is not something she recalls with fondness.
The sisters cheerleaders for eachother; Wallace supporting McCaslin first and her younger sister returning the favor.
“She’s been through it. She urged me to keep going,” Wallace said.
A breast cancer survivor on the staff at Mansfield High School, where Wallace is an instructional assistant, also gave her constant assurance and encouragement, and they took up a walking route together.
Wallace recognizes what so many cancer survivors do — that today’s treatments offer the chance to survive a disease that could have been fatal not too many years ago. Targeted therapies and genetic typing of tumors make what were once grim or fatal diagnoses into chronic conditions or, in many cases, curable ones.
Both Wallace and her sister are taking Tamoxifen, a drug that interferes with the activity of the female hormone estrogen and is used both to treat breast cancer and to prevent it. Their prognoses are good, but she said neither one of them is out of the woods yet.
Wallace said no one knows what predisposes people to cancer, but, like many, she thinks it may well be due to environmental factors she was exposed to.
“I tell my kids, if your grandmother hasn’t heard of it, it’s probably not good for you,” she said.
And she has a final cautionary word for women who have ignored advice to get an annual mammogram or have conveniently forgotten to make an appointment.
“Two mammograms and the skill of many people saved our lives,” she said. “Do it. Go.”
Sisters MaryAnn McCaslin of Dedham, left, and resident Linda Wallace of East Mansfield were both diagnosed with breast cancer within months of each other.