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"We Fought Back Against Breast Cancer!"

Diane Greene and Sisters
Sisters laughing
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David Land

"We faced our fears."
—(left to right) Laura McGowan, 50; Carol Wolkiewicz, 42; Linda Phaneuf, 51; Diane Greene, 47

Diane and her three sisters first learned about breast cancer when they were in their teens. Their mother and her brother and sister were diagnosed with the disease—all three died between the ages of 50 and 60. "We hoped the cause was environmental, not genetic," says Diane, the mom of two teenage boys in Plainview, New York. But in 1998, at the age of 38, Diane found a lump that turned out to be malignant. After a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, Diane underwent genetic testing, as did her three sisters. Three of the four tested positive for the mutated BRCA2 gene, indicating that they are 40% to 80% more likely to develop the disease than the average woman.

Biggest Hurdle

Deciding to have our breasts removed. Laura, a human resources recruiter assistant in Dix Hills, New York, with three boys, was the first sister to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy (the surgical removal of breast tissue beneath the skin and nipple of both breasts) soon after testing positive. A few months later, when Diane had an MRI, the radiologist saw some suspicious spots in her remaining breast that were too small to even biopsy. She went ahead with a prophylactic mastectomy. (The breast was cancer free.) Linda, 50, from Fresh Meadows, New York, who also has three sons, waited six years after testing positive to have a bilateral preventive mastectomy. "I had to have two biopsies (both were benign), two years in a row. That made the decision to have the surgery easy," she says.

Advice to Others

Be proactive. The sisters are thankful they took advantage of technology their parents' generation didn't have. "We all talked and thought about breast cancer for so many years," says Laura. "Having our breasts removed has given us much more peace of mind."

Life Goes On

The sisters go about their daily lives knowing that they've done all that they can. They're not totally in the clear because not all breast tissue can be surgically removed with a mastectomy. "You can't completely forget about it," Diane says. Instead of trying to put it out of her mind, Diane decided to help others by volunteering for a breast cancer hotline. "I was afraid I would just be reliving my experience again and again. But it turns out, I've found helping to be healing."