~ Three sisters share breast-cancer journey

Three sisters share breast-cancer journey

By Tammy Keith Published October 10, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Kelvin Green

Joan Brown, from left, and Billie Jean McGinty, who are twins, sit on a swing with their sister, Joyce Johnson, at Joyce’s home in Greenbrier. Joyce was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and insisted that Billie Jean, who had never had a mammogram, get one. Billie Jean also had breast cancer. Joan had repeated callbacks after mammograms because of suspicious nodules in her breasts, and all three women chose to have double mastectomies at Conway Regional Medical Center.

Joyce Johnson and her sisters, twins Joan Brown and Billie Jean McGinty, have been close all their lives, but breast cancer is not something they wanted to share.

Two of the three women were diagnosed with breast cancer within weeks of each other; the third had precancerous nodules, and all three underwent bilateral mastectomies.

Joyce, 61, was diagnosed with breast cancer first, in 2006, and initially underwent chemotherapy and had a bilateral mastectomy the next year. After her diagnosis, Joyce immediately made an appointment for her sister Billie Jean, 63, to get a mammogram because she had never had one. Billie Jean was diagnosed with an aggressive type of breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy the week of Thanksgiving 2006.

Joan, 63, had an extensive breast reduction and then a double mastectomy two weeks later, after years of suspicious nodules and rechecks after mammograms. Joan said her doctor told her it “would be a miracle” if she didn’t develop breast cancer like her twin sister and younger sister had.

Joyce and Joan had their surgeries the same day in May 2007, one after another, and shared a hospital room at Conway Regional Medical Center. Billie Jean spent the night with them.

“My mom said if we ever had major surgery on the same day, she was going to kill us,” Joyce said, laughing.

Joyce’s breast-cancer journey started in September 2006 when she found a lump. She said she’s always been religious about performing self-exams and has a “Feel your Boobies” sticker on her car.

She’d had a mammogram in March 2006, but in September during a self-exam in the shower, she felt a knot in her breast.

“I knew that wasn’t there the month before,” she said.

Joyce wasted no time getting a mammogram, and the radiologist immediately told her she needed to see a surgeon.

She was terrified. “You just have this sixth sense — I’ve never had a questionable mammogram, but something about this was different,” she said. “We already had a history of breast cancer in the family.”

The sisters have an aunt who is a breast-cancer survivor, too.

Joyce underwent a surgical biopsy and was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer.

“It was aggressive, because it wasn’t there in March, and this was September,” Joyce said.

She took eight chemotherapy treatments, which ended in March 2007.

“I was supposed to start radiation, and the chemo had just darn near killed me,”

she said.

Joyce said losing her hair was “traumatic.”

“Let me tell you something; there’s not an easy way to do it, but try to fix yourself up,” she said.

She wore a wig when she was taking chemo and asked a relative to take her photo in front of a Christmas tree — with and without her wig. When she thought she couldn’t make it anymore, she looked at those photos.

She consulted with her physician and decided the best option was to have a bilateral mastectomy. She started the reconstruction project immediately.

Joyce said she was on a breast-cancer medication that caused adverse side effects.

“I’ve been off five years, and I’m just now feeling to the point I know, deep down in my heart, I’m going to make it. I don’t know what God has in store for me, but if it’s just something life throws at me, I’m going to make it.

“You find out you can do a lot of things you didn’t think you can do,” she said.

Billie Jean had never gotten a mammogram because she hadn’t had health insurance. In 2006, she had just been hired as custodial supervisor for the city of Conway. She’d had insurance for a few months, plus a cancer policy for 17 days that Joyce insisted she get.

“That cancer policy saved me financially,” Billie Jean said.

Joyce was working as an administrative assistant for the Conway Police Department at the time. Billie Jean recalled that one day when she was walking through the Police Department, Joyce — who was undergoing chemotherapy — said, ‘Jean, have you had your mammogram?’”

Although she performed self-breast exams, Billie Jean said she told her sister she’d never had a mammogram. She recalled that Joyce said, “Well, you’re going to go get one.” Joyce called and made the mammography appointment for Billie Jean at Conway Regional Medical Center.

Billie Jean got the dreaded phone call after her mammogram that she had suspicious nodules, and she underwent a surgical biopsy.

“They called me in and told me I had cancer in my milk ducts. I was a little shocked,” Billie Jean said. “I did worry about [getting breast cancer], but I hadn’t felt anything at all; I was in great health.”

She had ductal carcinoma in situ, which means it had not spread to nearby breast tissue, according to the national breast cancer website. She said only a mammogram would have found the cancer.

Billie Jean said she told the doctor, “Take them off right now,” and he had already scheduled her for surgery, anticipating her decision. She elected to have a bilateral mastectomy and underwent surgery the week of Thanksgiving 2006. Fourteen months later, she had reconstructive surgery.

Joan was having regular mammograms at the time of her diagnosis and was often called back for suspicious lumps.

“When I went to get my mammogram in November (2006), they told me to come back in three more months,” Joan said, because there had been changes in her baseline mammogram.

She said the doctor told her the chances were great of her getting breast cancer, too.

“He said, ‘You’re looking at a future of it,’” she said. “They told me it would be a miracle if I didn’t [get breast cancer]. I was just sick of it. I said, ‘I do not have time for cancer; let’s go.’”

Her insurance would not pay for the bilateral mastectomy; it would, however, pay for breast reduction. She had an extensive reduction, then complications caused her to have another surgery two weeks later to remove all her breast tissue.

“It’s down to the chest wall; it’s bone there,” Joan said.

Because of the extent of her surgery, she wasn’t able to have reconstructive surgery.

She said her husband, who has since died, had congestive heart failure, and she was his caregiver.

“My biggest fear was if something happened to me, who would take care of him?” she said.

“Once the mastectomy happened, it was a relief to me. Coming out of the hospital was like, that’s one more thing I’m not going to have to worry about.”

The twins both said Joyce saved their lives.

“She definitely saved my life because I would have never gone to get a mammogram. I would have just kept on trucking,” Billie Jean said. “They said mine couldn’t have been felt, and it would have spread to my lymph nodes.”

Joyce had one grandchild when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has lived to see five more born and two stepsons married. Billie Jean is a grandmother. Joan is a grandmother and is going to be a great-

grandmother.

“I don’t know that anything could have ever brought us closer. We were thick as thieves anyway, but after going through this, you can’t slip a knife between us. We’re that close,” Joyce said.

All three sisters are retired, and they volunteer on the new Community Emergency Response Team in Greenbrier.

Joyce said they are also close to their two brothers, Gary McGinty and Perry McGinty, and their parents, Bertha Warren and John “Buck” McGinty, all of Greenbrier.

Within six weeks of the sisters’ diagnoses, Joyce said, three first cousins on her mother’s side were diagnosed with breast cancer, and one has since died.

Joyce and her husband, Steve, have two daughters, who have been tested for the genetic mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer, and they are not carriers of the gene. Joyce said they get regular mammograms. Joan and Billie Jean each have one daughter, and they also are vigilant about getting mammograms.

Joyce said if there is a family history, “you need to fight for your daughters to be able to start early mammograms, and the insurance companies don’t like to do that. They need to be checked as soon as possible and get a baseline. Then when they go for yearly [mammograms], they have a better chance of catching it.”

Joyce said she was released from the doctor on her visit in March — 10 years after her ordeal began.

She said the overriding lesson is for women to know their bodies.

“If one month you don’t feel something and the next month you do, I don’t care if you had a mammogram three weeks ago; you go back,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to tell your doctor, ‘This is not right.’ Had I waited six months till my next scheduled mammogram — mine was the kind that fed off hormones — it would have been a lot further along.”

And if the doctor balks about a mammogram, “find somebody else,” Joyce said.

“If you have to take on the insurance company, take them on. It’s your life,” she said. “I would never want to go through this again, but I have met some amazing people through this cancer journey. There is a whole society out there, basically, that has walked this walk or had a loved one that it wasn’t caught in time.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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