Breast Cancer Australia: Sisters diagnosed within six weeks of each other

Aisling, 50, left, and Margaret, 46, right, Cunningham were diagnosed with cancer within six weeks of each other in earth-shattering coincidence

Two sisters who were diagnosed with breast cancer within six weeks of each other have revealed how they worked together to overcome the disease.

Aisling, 50, and Margaret Cunningham, 46, from Brisbane, received the earth-shattering news in August, 2020.

Margaret was standing in front of the mirror when she noticed one of her breasts looked a lot different to the other for the first time in her life.

She immediately saw her doctor and tests later revealed she had lobular breast cancer, a form of hormone-positive breast cancer that begins in the milk glands.

Aisling, 50, left, and Margaret, 46, right, Cunningham were diagnosed with cancer within six weeks of each other in earth-shattering coincidence

The sisters who are both single mums tackled the disease and treatments together - helping each other with childcare when they could

The sisters who are both single mums tackled the disease and treatments together – helping each other with childcare when they could

Margaret started treatment immediately and urgently warned her family, including her mother and two sisters, to get checked for cancer.

To their horror Aisling had it too. She was diagnosed with a different form of breast cancer known as Invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type.

The sisters, who are both single mums and live next door to one another, said it was a blessing to be diagnosed just weeks apart.

‘When Margaret was doing her chemotherapy I was having surgery and when I was doing my chemotherapy she had her surgery,’ Aisling said.

‘So we were able to be there for each other and be there for the kids.’

The sisters first told FEMAIL their story one year ago – but there have been complications since.

Margaret has had both of her hips replaced – after they became weak in 2021 and eventually collapsed following the intense chemotherapy.

Her hip pain began during chemo, but she ignored it assuming it was part of the normal cancer pain, as everything hurt.

Aisling was diagnosed with cancer after Margaret told her to get checked out following her own diagnosis

Aisling was diagnosed with cancer after Margaret told her to get checked out following her own diagnosis

But when the pain became unbearable she went in for a scan – despite her ‘scanziety’.

‘I was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, but I was so relieved it was something else and not cancer,’ she said.

The new medical problem meant blood couldn’t get to the hips properly, causing them to become weak.

Her doctors tried to put the replacements off by giving Margaret bone-strengthening drugs but one after another the hips collapsed.

‘When I got in to have the first one done the nurse said she thought my birth year must have been a typo, because I am quite young to have a hip replacement,’ she said.

They have spent the last two years supporting each other through therapies and surgeries

They have spent the last two years supporting each other through therapies and surgeries

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF BREAST CANCER AND WHO CAN GET IT?

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia – one in seven women and one in 716 men are expected to be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime.

In Australia, the overall five-year survival rate for breast cancer in females is 91%. If the cancer is limited to the breast, 96% of patients will be alive five years after diagnosis; this figure excludes those who die from other diseases. If the cancer has spread to the regional lymph nodes, five-year relative survival drops to 80%.

Most people with breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease.

Signs and symptoms include the following:

New lumps, thickening in the breast, changes in shape or size of the breast and changes in the shape of the nipple.

Some women don’t have any symptoms and it is only found during a mammogram.

Women and men can be diagnosed with breast cancer. Anybody can. For both men and women, if you notice any new or unusual changes in your breasts, see your doctor without delay.

SOURCE: NATIONAL BREAST CANCER FOUNDATION

‘By September the left hip had collapsed and I was booked in for a full replacement, which I put off until December because it meant weeks without driving which is hard when you have kids, even when you have an amazing support network like I do.

‘For eight weeks I couldn’t relax on a comfortable chair, drive or even dress myself.’

At this point the right side was only showing slight signs or weakness, but by April it too had collapsed.

‘I am just getting back to exercise now and finally after two years of medical appointments I am starting to feel okay, even normal,’ she said.

The hips can typically last up to 15 years.

‘But I am hoping mine last me well into old age,’ the mother-of-two said.

Margaret is now on the mend but admits going through two more major surgeries so soon after cancer was difficult.

The sisters are looking forward to their first normal Christmas in two years - one where their kids don't have to miss out on the excitement of the day in any way

The sisters are looking forward to their first normal Christmas in two years – one where their kids don’t have to miss out on the excitement of the day in any way

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Different people have different symptoms of breast cancer. Some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all.

Some warning signs of breast cancer are:

New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)

Thickening or swelling of part of the breast

Irritation or dimpling of breast skin

Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast

Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area

Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood

Any change in the size or the shape of the breast

Pain in any area of ​​the breast

Keep in mind that these symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer.

Source: CDC

Her children had to help her dress some mornings, because she couldn’t bend down to put pants in the weeks after each operation.

‘They were seven and 11 and really had to step up around the house, and understand that I would be exhausted and ready for bed by 6.30 or 7,’ she said.

Both women were put into chemical menopause following the discovery of their cancers.

But after struggling with returning to hospital every month for hormone-blocking injections Aisling decided to have her ovaries removed.

‘It went really well, and has been so good for me because I now feel like less of a patient, in fact I am feeling really well,’ she said.

She had already gone through a double mastectomy as part of her cancer treatment and is excited to have surgeries behind her.

‘Also I also had my port-a-cath out – which is a relief, because I had to go back to where I had chemo to get it cleaned every six weeks, which wasn’t nice,’ she said.

The sisters say they are finally feeling good and are healing mentally from the rollercoaster of the las two years

The sisters say they are finally feeling good and are healing mentally from the rollercoaster of the las two years

Now the mum-of-one is working on getting her strength and fitness back on track.

‘Most people don’t realize you lose a lot of arm strength during a double mastectomy, especially when they take a lot of lymph nodes out,’ she said.

‘So I am doing yoga for the first time in my life and I am loving it.’

The mums are looking forward to their first Christmas without medical-related complications since they were first diagnosed.

They are also excited to reveal their brand Lula Eye Mask has gone from strength to strength.

‘Mags was able to quit her job of 14 years and we now both work in the business full time,’ Aisling said.

‘We do all of our work from home, moving from one house to the other,’ she added.

This is helpful on days when they aren’t feeling the best.

Their business selling self-warming eye masks is booming - despite having to juggle running it with their health emergencies

Their business selling self-warming eye masks is booming – despite having to juggle running it with their health emergencies

‘We have both been through cancer and understand the side effects and can take up the slack if the other needs a break.’

The sisters said they are inundated with messages from breast cancer survivors who want to support the company and the community they have built.

‘People share their stories with us and they are so heart warming, I try to respond to every one but sometimes it takes a few days to find the right words,’ Aisling said.

‘We are so proud to be able to remind women to take a few moments for self care, without feeling guilty about it.

‘Women do so much, self care is so important, whether you are sick or not.’

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