Survivor Sisters: How Two Different Cancers in Non-Biological Siblings Created an Unbreakable Bond

A woman living with metastatic breast cancer shares how her relationship with her sister who was adopted from Korea transformed after they both received a cancer diagnosis.

In 1980 I was five years old and an only child. My mom didn’t want me to grow up as an only child as she had, but she was past the point of having another child. My parents made the decision to adopt.

I so clearly remember the drive to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to pick up my little sister. She was adopted from Korea at the age of two. My parents and grandparents, along with all the other expectant adoptive families, waited anxiously for the flight attendants to bring their children off the airplane. Back in the 80s this was how it was done, and a lot of children were being adopted at the time from Korea.

It was a long flight, but my sister Laura was finally here. She had a very dirty diaper as a result of her journey. My grandmother, having raised four boys and having dozens of grandchildren, knew just what to do when we got back to the house. We spent that first night at my grandparents’ house in Westchester near the airport. My grandfather and father went out to get my sister a few things while my mom and grandma took charge in getting my new little sister cleaned up. Those are my first memories of becoming a big sister to Laura. At age five, dirty diapers leave lasting memories.

Growing up we played and fought just like any other siblings. I taught her how to drive a stick shift car in a vacant parking lot. We went school shopping together. We argued over stupid things. We gossiped and shared secrets about boys. We made forts out of giant refrigerator boxes. We grew up together living in a 1960s-era California ranch house that boasted all electric power. Our house had an acoustic popcorn ceiling and I’m sure there was lead paint in there somewhere. We were just like any other sisters — except we didn’t share the same genetic makeup.

At age 38 I was diagnosed with estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer with no clear reason why. Then a few years later when Laura was 38, she was diagnosed with a granulosa cell tumor of the ovary. This is a rare type of ovarian cancer which can cause a higher-than-normal level of estrogen. She wound up having a hysterectomy and is doing well.

Then I ended up having a hysterectomy that same year about six months later because I had a large adnexal mass on my ovary which when biopsied was a metastasis of my breast cancer. Both of our cancers may be estrogen-related, yet we are not blood-related.

What are the chances of us sharing a cancer diagnosis at the same age? Genetics? No, not possible. Was it something we were exposed to in our youth? Environmental? The jury is still out. Was it three women in one household that created too much estrogen? Sorry, Dad, for having to live with all females.

It just seems so odd to us. It certainly makes you wonder. We have different genes and different ethnicities but grew up together in the same house and both had a cancer diagnosis at the same age. There’s so much we don’t know about cancer.

It seems to not matter who you are or where you come from. There’s no discrimination in cancer. We are sisters on a different level now. We are survivor sisters.

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