Healthbeat Report: Breast Cancer

October 4, 2012 (CHICAGO)

The Phipps sisters -- five girls, nine years apart -- grew up in Merrillville, Indiana. They say they were a typical Midwestern family -- until the first bombshell in November 2010. At age 46, the baby of the family, Karen Phipps Giordano discovered a lump the size of a walnut on her breast.

"It ended up malignant," said Karen.

Then a couple of weeks later following a routine mammogram, her sister, Mary Kay Phipps Ramirez, got her own devastating diagnosis. Just before her 50th birthday cancer was found in both breasts.

"I think I was numb, you know, at that point it was just like, really ... again?" said Mary Kay.

But the shock wasn't over. Several months later, the family was hit again oldest sister, Janie Phipps Bell, who lives outside Houston, became the third sister to be diagnosed within the same year. It was right before her 56th birthday.

"Within one year we had three diagnoses," said Karen. "And each of us had done through genetic testing and it was all negative."

That is not a big surprise to cancer experts. Only a small amount of breast cancers are thought to be passed down by a relative.

"Five to 10 percent of breast cancer have a heredity 'cause that's a small amount. It is a small amount," said Dr. Melody Cobleigh, Breast Oncologist, Rush University Medical Center.

Mutations to the BRCA genes are the best known. And there are at least a dozen other inherited genetic mutations. But researchers believe breast cancers in families are more likely the result of minor genetic factors combined with aging, the environment and lifestyle.

Dr. Cobleigh says this family's situation demonstrates why women should not be drawn into a false sense of security.

"Seventy five percent of women who get breast cancer have no history of it," said Dr. Cobleigh. "A woman has no family history of breast cancer so she thinks she doesn't need to be diligent about screening mammography."

The Phipps sisters have now learned their father's mother had breast cancer. They still suspect something bad is hidden in their DNA.

"We are not out of the woods yet and that is something we have to be concerned about," said Laura Phipps Ryan.

Breast cancer has brought them closer and with their 82-year-old mother cheering them on they proudly voice their family slogan "Phight like a Phipps girl" while spreading the word about early detection.

Karen Giordano's cancer returned. She's currently in treatment at Rush. She's also taking part in research at the University of Chicago aimed at identifying unknown genetic causes of cancer susceptibility in families.

Phight like a Phipps Girl

Dr. Melody Cobleigh
Rush University Medical Center

American Cancer Society
American Cancer Society recommendations for early breast cancer

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