Healthy Living

Sisters fight breast cancer together

They were at each other's side, joking around, every step of the way to recovery

Sisters and breast cancer survivors Jeanette Henry (left) and Roberta McElhaney pose for a photo at Physicians' Clinic o
Sisters and breast cancer survivors Jeanette Henry (left) and Roberta McElhaney pose for a photo at Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. The sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer within a month of one another, Roberta in March of 2019 and Jeanette in April. They’ve both completed their chemotherapy treatments. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
/

It’s a story that’s almost too hard to believe — two Eastern Iowa sisters diagnosed with breast cancer just a month apart. But these two siblings — Roberta McElhaney, 62, of Atkins, and Jeanette Henry, 65, of Vinton — were able to face a scary situation with laughter and determination and are celebrating their remission together. “We made a decision that we were gonna kick the s--- out of this, and we’re gonna stand by each other and keep going and keep fighting together,” McElhaney said.

In early March 2019, McElhaney noticed an open sore above her right breast. A couple of weeks later, the sore became painful and swollen, and she decided to stop at St. Luke’s Urgent Care after work.

“By that time, my arm was about four times as big as it’s supposed to be,” she said.

After a biopsy and mammogram, she learned she had Stage IV breast cancer. Her sister was with her for many of the tests and early doctor visits. At a genetic testing appointment at PCI, a doctor asked Jeanette Henry when she’d last had a mammogram.

“That was on a Friday,” Henry said. “I went in on Monday to the Virginia Gay Hospital (in Vinton) to have my mammogram done. They called me on Tuesday and said, ‘You need to come back in ’cause we found something in your right breast.’ And I’m going, ‘Great.’ ”

Less than a month after her sister’s diagnosis, Henry was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer.

At the time, McElhaney said, she had a doctor team set up for her. Her sister didn’t have a doctor team, “so I asked PCI if she could have my team also, and they agreed to do both of us.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Dr. Bharat Jenigiri, a medical oncologist with the Helen G. Nassif Community Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids, is part of the sisters’ care team. He has treated other family members who have had cancer but never two sisters at the same time.

“Cancer is a familial disease,” he said. “There are a lot of people who actually end up with similar cancers, but not at the same time like Roberta and Jeanette. They were right next to each other, literally, so that was very surprising.”

The sisters share a family history of breast cancer, with their mom, two aunts and a younger sister all having had the diagnosis.

Both sisters went through months of chemotherapy in the summer and fall before having surgery to remove the tumors.

McElhaney continued to work at Cedar Rapids Janitorial Service, so she scheduled her treatments for Wednesday afternoons after she got off work.

Henry, a retired certified nursing assistant, went in on Monday or Tuesday mornings. When a holiday fell on a Monday, she would go for chemo at the same time as her sister. “When we were there at the same time, it threw them off completely, because we look quite a bit alike,” Henry said. “Every time that we did go in for our chemo at the same time, they’d go, ‘Oh, no, we’ve got both of ’em today. We’ve got double trouble.’ We were always in a good mood and joking with them.”

“They kind of lit up the clinic every time they came in,” Jenigiri said.

“They are always talking to the other patients, very upbeat and encouraging.”

Henry’s husband and daughter also were with her for many of her appointments, including the day she got to ring the bell after her final chemotherapy treatment.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. McElhaney had a reaction to her chemo and had to take a six-week break.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Henry finished her chemo in October 2019 and had surgery Nov. 16. McElhaney finished her chemo in November and had surgery Dec. 16. “I started out ahead of her and ended up behind her,” McElhaney said.

Then came six weeks of radiation, five days a week.

Each sister had her right breast removed. Each sister was present for the other sister’s surgery.

They kept their five other siblings informed about their treatment, as well as their parents, now 88 and 90 and living 90 miles away in Clarksville.

“They couldn’t come to everything, especially in the winter, so we told them to stay put, and we’d do phone tag and keep them filled in, and we’d do this together so they didn’t have to worry,” McElhaney said.

The sisters’ cancer is now in remission.

Henry had a nodule on her thyroid biopsied during a cancer checkup and had it removed a month after her mastectomy because it could have become cancerous.

“I was just getting my appetite back because I could taste again, and then I had to go back on a soft diet,” she said.

Henry has some lymphedema, or swelling, in her arms and feet, but a massage machine at home helps her manage.

McElhaney still sees her doctor every three weeks for a checkup and infusions to treat swelling in her arm. She wears an arm sleeve and glove and has physical therapy once a week. The sisters plan to celebrate their cancer remission with their whole family once it’s safe for everyone to travel and be around each other.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“2019 was bad enough, and then with everything going on in 2020, too, with the storm and with the virus and with everything else plus the cancer, it wears on you,” McElhaney said.

“But 2021’s gotta be better!” her sister replied.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.