The ripple effect of breast cancer

There are many things that forge strong bonds between sisters, and the McGrath siblings hoped that breast cancer would not be one of them.

Liz and her younger sister Felicity had watched their mother Gaye live with the disease from when they were just three and five years old.

Nine years later, Gaye’s breast cancer became metastatic. For the girls and their three brothers, ‘Mum’s wig and treatments’ over the course of 12 years – which included bouts of chemotherapy, radiation and mastectomy – was a way of life.

Gaye was determined to undertake any treatment that would prolong her time with her family, so her death at just 48 years old came as a shock, and at 18 Liz remembers ‘having to grow up very quickly’.

It was when she turned 36, the same age her mother had been when she was first diagnosed, that Liz was told she had early breast cancer.

‘I was pragmatic’, she says. A mother of two young children at the time, Liz and her husband Chris had always planned to have a third child, and so decided to preserve her eggs before she underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.

It would be another four years before she was able to consider pregnancy and, with several other changes to their family, Liz ultimately made peace with the fact that another baby ‘was not meant to be’.

When Felicity turned 36, despite not having the BRCA gene, she had already decided to have an elective mastectomy given her family’s history. A mother to three young children, she didn’t want to take any chances.

The sisters opted to share a hospital room, with Felicity’s surgery coinciding with Liz’s reconstruction. It was only later that pathology revealed Felicity had DCIS in one breast.

‘It was really comforting to have each other,’ Liz recalls. ‘You never think you will be on a breast cancer journey with your sister. Having already lost our mum, we were ready for the battle, but it was still tough.’

And it was tough not just on them but their families.

Fast forward seven years, and the pair exude happiness and good health. Liz has had a career change and now fits women with prosthetic breasts.

‘I find it incredibly rewarding to be able to provide some comfort to women during a very difficult and emotional time in their lives’, she says.

Liz and Felicity are closer than ever and their bond was evident at the photo shoot for the 2020 Pink Bun Campaign.

The theme of the campaign is the ‘ripple effect’ of breast cancer or, as Liz describes it, ‘more like a tidal wave for our family’.

Amid the laughter, they admit that few people realise how many family and friends are affected by one person’s diagnosis.

Liz recalls that breast cancer ‘impacted our entire childhood and changed our family forever’. Then, as adults with the disease, the impact was felt all over again as ‘Your kids, husband and extended family as well as your friends are impacted too and it lasts a long time.’

Liz and Felicity say they have been each other’s mum, sister and best friend. ‘We’re so glad we got to go through it together.’

For more information on the Pink Bun campaign, visit the BCNA website.

Issue 87
Spring 2020