Mother, daughter share cancer journey twists, survivors’ advice

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By Mayo Clinic staff

Some personality traits are inherited. A child may be introverted, agreeable or meticulous like a parent. Other traits are learned, such as mannerisms, speech patterns and resilience during adversity.

Resilience and strength are traits that Rae Reekie and Amy White have in common. This mother and daughter duo also live on the same street in Tomah, Wisconsin, and are professionals, mothers, wives, daughters and friends. Rae and Amy are each two-time breast cancer survivors, as well.

First diagnoses

Rae was 52 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. It was detected during a routine mammogram. Rae had a family member diagnosed with breast cancer years earlier, so she was diligent about annual mammograms. She soon found herself juggling cancer treatments with her busy home and work life as a certified nursing assistant. She had a lumpectomy to remove the cancer and underwent a series of radiation treatments.

"I worked my morning shift at the hospital," says the retired 75-year-old. "Amy would leave school to pick me up and bring me home. Then my husband or a friend would drive me to radiation."

The treatments were challenging. Rae was relieved when it was over and her cancer gone. She made it a priority to talk with her daughters, Amy and Christine Rox, about her experience. She also stressed the importance of being diligent with screenings and knowing your body.

This advice served Amy well when she discovered a lump on her right breast six years later in 2003.

"I was just 37 at the time. I went to scratch an itch and felt something that seemed like a tiny bump," says Amy, a 55-year-old high school teacher. "It wasn't big, but it was worrisome to me that it wasn't normal. My intuition was telling me what I needed to do."

Amy talked with her mom about what she discovered, and Rae encouraged her to get it checked out. The biopsy results confirmed what Amy's intuition feared – she had breast cancer.

"Emotionally, it was brutal," recalls Amy. "I had watched my mom go through her experience, and it felt surreal that I was facing the same thing."

Amy met with M. Kathleen Christian, M.D., a surgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to discuss her options. Her cancer was classified as stage 1 invasive ductule cancer. Like Rae's treatment a few years earlier, Amy would need a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and radiation. She also had chemotherapy.

Amy leaned on the support of Rae and the rest of her family to get through the treatments. Amy's cancer responded to treatment. After a while, she was back to work and the family pressed on.

Second diagnoses

Amy and Rae had put cancer behind them, at least for a short time. In 2005, a routine mammogram showed some concerning spots on both of Amy's breasts. A biopsy confirmed that she had breast cancer for a second time. She was just 39.

"I thought, 'Here I go again,'" Amy says. "Only this time, the stakes were higher because there were concerning spots on both breasts."

Dr. Christian and team developed an aggressive treatment plan for Amy.

"Dr. Christian sat down with us and went through the pros and cons of everything," she says. "That helped me make the best decisions for myself and my family."

Amy began chemotherapy and radiation treatments. After much discussion, she decided to have a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction as well.

After Amy's second diagnosis, the family had genetic testing completed to determine if their cancers were caused by BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. About 5% to 10% of breast cancers and 10% to 15% of ovarian cancers are hereditary. The test results showed that the family does not carry any genes known to be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Their cancer may not be hereditary, but their strength is.

Twelve years passed cancer-free for the family, and Rae and Amy continued with annual screenings. In 2017, an annual mammogram showed a concerning spot in Rae's breast. It was 20 years after her first breast cancer diagnosis.

"It was kind of a shocker because it had been so long," Rae says. "Many people think that if you make it past five years in recovery, you are OK. But that's a false sense of security."

Rae's treatment included chemotherapy and radiation. She found herself in a unique community of cancer survivors, occasionally seeing friends and neighbors in the Center for Breast Care waiting room. Friends and family brought her meals and offered support.

Survivors' advice

It's been five years since the mother and daughter duo's last breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. They have had a few "twists and turns" with their health during that time, but feel well today.

They remain diligent about their overall health and wish to share advice for people whose lives have been affected by cancer:

Know your body.

Women should become familiar with their breasts to detect abnormalities or changes. Amy was young when she discovered a spot on her breast that was different and unexpected. Her cancer was detected early because she knew what was normal and abnormal for her body.

"It's important that people watch for unusual changes to their bodies and be advocates for their own health," agrees Dena Brion, a nurse practitioner in the Center for Breast Care. "Amy was concerned about the change she noticed and sought care when something didn't seem right. We want everyone to be empowered to manage their own health just like Amy."

Other breast changes that are warning signs of cancer include a new lump, breast thickening, shift in breast shape or size, and changes in the nipple.

Be diligent about screenings

A mammogram is a proven method of determining if you have any breast abnormalities. In Rae and Amy's cases, an annual mammogram discovered their cancers early.

"Be persistent and get tested every year," says Rae. "You can't get too comfortable. It's not a one and done type of thing. You need to have one every year."

"Annual mammograms starting at age 40 are recommended for women of average risk," says Dr. Christian. "If you have family history of breast cancer, start your exams 10 years prior to your family member's age at diagnosis. For example, begin yearly mammograms at 36 if your mother was diagnosed at 46."

Amy has discussed this screening recommendation with her daughter. She will need to begin annual screenings at a younger age because of Amy's diagnosis at age 37.

Find the right health care team for you

Compassion, expertise and listening are essential skills for a health care team, according to Rae and Amy. They recommend survivors find the right team to lead them through their cancer journeys.

"Find a doctor that you are comfortable with and who listens to you and answers your questions," says Amy. "Take an active role in your health care. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Be a part of the process."

Both women have developed strong bonds with their health care team in the Center for Breast Care, including Dr. Christian and Dena.

"It has been a joy to care for and get to known Rae, Amy and their family members," says Dr. Christian. "They are a lovely family and an inspiration."

Amy remembers fondly the time she spent with James Novotny, M.D., a Mayo Clinic Health System oncologist who retired in 2014 after 29 years of practice.

Seek support

Leaning on the support of family and friends helped Rae and Amy during their cancer journeys. They helped with rides, meals, housework and babysitting. They also offered a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen.

"Cancer affects the entire family, especially if you have younger kids," says Amy. "Don't be afraid to ask for help. It's OK to let the people in our lives help us."

The family created a special tradition during annual mammograms. Rae, Amy and Christine schedule their appointments on the same day, so they have a built-in support network. They celebrate together as well.

"All of these emotions come back once a year when we go back in, but we are all there for each other," says Rae. "After our appointments, we enjoy a mother/daughter lunch and take a picture of the three of us in Christine's backyard."

Rae and Amy have been given the gift of time together and new perspectives after their cancer journeys. And they pass along their traits of resiliency and strength to future generations in their family.

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A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic Health System Hometown Health Blog.