Sisters Linda McNish and Betty Jo Corel are just three years apart and are best friends.
They like to bake and do crafty things together. They help each other with house projects, like painting a room. They share lots of laughs and like to be pranksters.
Linda, 46, lives in Lawrence and is single with no children. Betty Jo, 43, lives in Lecompton, is married with four children ranging in age from 12 to 23. Linda is like a second mother to the children. She goes to their school activities and sporting events.
“She’s always cheering them on,” Betty Jo said. “She’s over here all of the time.”
During the past year, the sisters had a new bond — terminal cancer.
“Don’t know if I have a few months or 20 years. I have someone good here to look up to and who has been through it,” Betty Jo said as she nodded to Linda who was sitting across the conference room table in the Lawrence Oncology Center. “She’s a heck of a fighter and us McNishes are that way.”
At age 29, Linda felt a lump in her left breast. She went to her primary care doctor who said she was too young to have cancer and it didn’t run in her family. The doctor’s advice was to come back the next month.
Linda got a second opinion and a biopsy revealed she had breast cancer. She had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
She was able to work at the Hallmark Cards plant through the treatments even though she had a catheter coming out of her chest. She remembers going through a cleansing routine at home. She also had to go out of town for care because oncology services were not available.
“It has changed so much since 1994,” she said of cancer care. “It was back in the days when you didn’t talk a whole lot about cancer. So, I just kind of kept to myself and my family and did what I needed to do to get by.”
For nine years, Linda was cancer-free.
In 2003, she felt a lump on her right breast. It was cancer and she would again undergo treatment.
In 2006, she began having a hard time breathing. A doctor told her it was allergies, but she knew it had to be something else.
“I was walking from the parking lot to the front desk at Hallmark and I couldn’t breathe. I would walk down the hallway and I couldn’t breathe.”
Once again, she got a second opinion. The doctor found her lungs were full of fluid. She said they took two 2-liter bottles of fluid from her lungs. It was tested and they found lung cancer.
Dr. Sherri Soule, of Lawrence Oncology Center, put her on two oral chemotherapy drugs that were part of a national clinical drug trial. The drugs were effective and her cancer disappeared, but, she had to go on disability because of the drugs’ side effects — fatigue and hand-foot syndrome where the toxicity causes burning, pain or peeling of her skin.
In 2009, she started getting headaches, so Dr. Soule ran tests and discovered brain cancer.
“They cut me from here — all the way up here,” Linda said, pointing to the scar. “They had to cut my skull. I have metal in my head because they couldn’t put the skull back because my bones are so brittle.”
She won’t forget the day of her surgery — Aug. 25, 2009, it was the same day that Ted Kennedy died of brain cancer.
Today, she’s still on the oral chemotherapy drugs and taking one day at a time.
Whenever her tests come back negative, Betty Jo calls it “celebration time.” It’s time to go buy a new outfit, eat out or do something fun.
“She gives me very encouraging words,” Linda said.
Last October, Linda’s phone rang about 10:30 p.m.
“In our family, we say if the phone rings after 10, it’s not good news,” Linda said.
Betty Jo has been diagnosed with breast cancer. She noticed something in her left chest just didn’t feel right. Several tests came back negative, but Linda still thought something was seriously wrong. Finally, a MRI-guided breast biopsy found the cancer that was close to her chest cavity.
She had nine months of chemotherapy and a surgery in March.
“In the beginning, it all seems really, really scary. You are overwhelmed,” she said. “There’s so many negative things.”
Betty Jo was glad she had her sister to lean on and talk to.
“Keep the faith. Keep going forward and just take one day at a time,” Linda advised.
Just before starting six weeks of radiation therapy treatments, Betty Jo began getting headaches. At first, she blamed the chemo. She also was off balance, confused and “foggy.”
She told Dr. Darren Klish, her radiation oncologist, and he ran some tests. He found five lesions on the right side of her brain. So, now she’s undergoing radiation for brain and breast cancer.
Betty Jo is on a leave of absence from her job and she’s doing just as her sister advised: Taking it one day at a time.
The sisters have been tested for the breast cancer gene. Linda has the gene and Betty Jo does not. The negative test surprised Dr. Soule.
“It is stunning and puzzling,” Soule said. “We ran it two or three times because we didn’t believe it.” The results mean that Betty’s four children do not have the gene.
Both sisters know all too well how precious life can be. They lost a nephew, Blake McNish, at age 11, to brain cancer in 2009.
“When we lost Blake it was devastating, but my God, ‘He was a miracle. He truly was,’” Betty Jo said.
Blake was diagnosed with cancer when he was just 15 months old. Doctors said he would be in a wheelchair, but he rode a bicycle and went to school.
Linda has made homemade quilts, pillow cases and stocking caps and donated them to Children’s Mercy Hospital where Blake was treated. She also has made hats for the Lawrence Oncology Center.
The sisters said their family — which includes four brothers and two other sisters — don’t avoid the "C" word, but they also don’t dwell on it.
“It does take a lot away from you, but it gives back too. I know that’s really weird and I should be in here cussing it, but I’m not,” Betty Jo said.
The younger sister looks at her glass as half full and keeps a positive attitude. That’s much harder for Linda who has been battling the disease for 17 years. She said the cancer has taken away so much — kids, strength, job, money, lifestyle, hair, fingernails and toenails.
“It takes away everything except family, and that’s who you lean on,” she said.