Cathy’s Family’s Story

Cathy Howard is a longtime teacher at Grand Island Central Catholic. She is one of 10 children, and when her mother was 45, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her own grandmother died of breast cancer as a young woman, and Cathy and her four sisters knew they were at high risk. After their mother died at 48, Cathy and her sisters automatically thought that they would all die young, too. “Losing our mother was awful for us. We were vigilant about our mammograms which, I absolutely believe, saved the lives of my two little sisters, but we thought we were marked women. We figured out how old our kids would be when we were 48 years old – the same age Mom was when she died.”

And then, at age 44, Cathy’s sister Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer. That same year, her sister Deb’s mammogram showed extensive atypical hyperplasia. “We knew the jig was up,” Cathy said. “Terri’s diagnosis was devastating for all of us. We watched my mother die from breast cancer when we were all young, and even in our adult eyes we feared that a cancer diagnosis automatically meant death. When Terri was diagnosed, it brought us all even closer than before. This is a disease we have fought together as a family.”

Terri underwent a double mastectomy for her breast cancer, and Cathy and her sisters Deb and Mary opted to have preventative mastectomies. “Every mammogram every year was a traumatic event. We lived year by year. Now, with our prophylactic mastectomies behind us, we feel like liberated women. Not to have a mammogram every year has been the greatest gift of my life. We are looking forward to living long lives and knowing our grandchildren.”

Her youngest sister, Carry, wasn’t ready for the surgery and was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 48. “All of us are healthy today, but due to our extensive family history, we were anxious for my 18 nieces to be aware of their breast health,” Cathy said.

So last September, Cathy, her sisters and all of their daughters and nieces were genetically tested, thanks to support from the Hereditary Cancer Foundation in Omaha. Most of the results were VUS (Variance of Uncertain Significance). With the exception of one niece, however, everybody had an elevated risk of breast cancer. “My nieces are now making plans for preventive surgery as soon as they reach the age of 35,” Cathy said.

Organizations like Susan G. Komen Great Plains offer support and guidance to women who are affected by breast cancer. “When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, there was no one for her to talk to and no one for us to talk to. Breast cancer was not talked about, period,” Cathy said. “Now, Susan G. Komen and other organizations have made it possible for women to confront the unthinkable and find support and knowledge and comfort. These are things that are so invaluable when you’re scared to death and unsure of how to proceed or wondering if you will even live.”