High-risk sisterhood

Her sister’s cancer may have helped save Sheila’s life.

Sheila Ann Swartz strolled the aisles of a local Home Goods store recently, but despite attractive mosaics, pillows and picture frames surrounding her, the store didn’t stock what would truly make her home life good.

As she perused the shelves, she thought of her sister, Sheri Jo Montag and herself, and how much life has changed in such a short time.

Like many siblings growing up a decade apart, Sheila and Sheri didn’t have much in common. When Sheri played with dolls, Sheila played sports.

As Sheila made wedding plans, Sheri made playground plans.

But now, the two share a sisterly bond they never could have imagined. Unfortunately, they also share a genetic bond that is conducive to cancer.

And they both have it.

‘It’s so tough’

Doctors diagnosed Sheri, of Grand Rapids, with stage 3 breast cancer in March of 2014. By November, the disease had spread to her liver.

The family set out to help Sheri in her cancer-fighting journey. It was in the midst of this battle, in February, that Sheila received a letter at her Caledonia home from the Spectrum Health High Risk Breast and Ovarian Clinic.

The mailer introduced the high-risk clinic and shared information about its offerings.

“I thought, ‘Why am I being sent this letter?'” she recalled. “I have been so diligent about going to Lemmen-Holton for extra imaging.”

The 52-year-old had been extra cautious since 2008, when doctors discovered dense tissue in her breasts. It’s a common condition, but one that can be a breeding ground for cancer. She’d just had her annual screening mammogram with Tomosynthesis (3-D mammography) six months before and thought all was well.

Two days after a March 21 fundraiser for Sheri’s medical expenses, Sheila accepted Spectrum Health’s proactive suggestion and made an appointment at the high-risk clinic. Better to be safe than sorry, she thought to herself.

Melinda Miller, MD, an oncology breast surgeon at Spectrum Health Cancer Center, said Sheila’s screening MRI caught the disease early.

Dr. Miller ordered additional imaging and biopsies.

Then came March. And a diagnosis she never wanted to hear, but not one she could return or exchange. Cancer in her right breast.

“Here all this time I’ve been supportive of my sister, offering positive thoughts to keep her spirits up,” Sheila said, talking about how she took the news. “OK, here we go. Now it’s my time. I was surprised because I had been going all those years and nothing was ever picked up on.”

Sheri, embroiled in her own cancer battle, will never forget the moment Sheila shared the news. Sheri had visited Sheila’s home with a gift, a wine bottle holder. When Sheri was about to leave, Sheila said she had to talk to her.

“I said, ‘Don’t even tell me. You have cancer,’” Sheri recalled. “It made me cry. I don’t want anyone to have to go through this because it’s so tough.”

Sheri knows. She’s been through chemotherapy and radiation. Her body is tired.

Sheila had a lumpectomy in June. Because cancer remained, she had a single mastectomy in late July.

“I couldn’t imagine seeing her go through chemo or radiation,” Sheri said. “It’s tough physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Strong sisterly bond

Sheri, who works at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and Sheila, who likes to peruse Home Goods, both were given a gift neither expected—something not stocked on store shelves, and something money can’t buy.

“Because of our 10-year age span, I was working and playing sports and she was a little girl,” Sheila said. “The cancer has brought us more together, to share feelings about the cancer. It’s like venting and being a listening ear for each other.”

Sheri feels it, too.

“I was an aunt when I was in fourth grade,” Sheri said. “Sheila was out of the house when I was still in elementary school. We didn’t have much in common. The cancer has strengthened us. It’s just brought us closer together. We used to talk maybe once a month. Now, we talk once every day or every other day and are texting back and forth to see how the other is doing.”

The relationship has duly changed.

“She’s always been like a mother figure to me,” Sheri said. “Now, she’s more of a sister. This experience has brought us together more like sisters.”

They attend cancer support groups together. They talk about the past. And the future—one that is so unknown it is merely supposition.

This sibling rivalry is one in which nobody wants to ever have to compete.

“My prognosis is better than hers—the stage, the proximity of it,” Sheila said. “Even though we both have cancer, hers is more advanced.”

Sheri’s goal right now is to augment the moments. She embarked on a whitewater rafting trip in Tennessee in late August with her husband, Jason, and sons Zachary, 8, and Ashton, 3. She plans to take her family to Disney World in October.

In case cancer ends up in the victory lane on this journey, she wants to go out fighting. And enjoying. And making every memory possible with her loved ones.

“I’m happy that my sister went above and beyond after I found out I had cancer,” Sheri said. “She jumped on top of it (and made an appointment at the high risk clinic). When we found out she had cancer, too, it was a shock to the whole family.”

High-risk evaluation

Sheila credits her sister’s condition—and the letter from the Spectrum Health Cancer Center—for potentially saving her life.

“Because of my sister, it gave me that extra heads up,” she said. “Had it not been for that, how long would I have gone without it exploding?”

Dr. Miller said Spectrum Health can help identify at-risk patients by a questionnaire they fill out at their mammogram appointment and also by direct referral from other providers.

“We are looking at patients with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, known genetic mutation in the family, a history of a precursor lesion to breast cancer and family history of related cancers,” Dr. Miller said.

High-risk patients get followed closely with annual MRIs, mammograms and tomosynthesis (3-D mammography).

“They get an imaging study every six months, which allows us to detect disease at its earliest stage,” Dr. Miller said. “Because of (Sheila’s) willingness to participate in the high-risk program, she was diagnosed with stage 0 disease, which portends an excellent prognosis.”

But the experience is far from over for Sheila. She’s on a mission—to encourage others to get regular breast exams.

‘Cancer doesn’t have me’

The Duncan Lake Middle School physical education parapro and athletic coordinator walks the walk.

“I’m on a mission here to stay positive and find out how we can get more awareness out there,” she said. “Yes, I have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have me. What am I going to do with it? I’m going to talk with people. I had a couple of ladies from school saying, ‘Because of you, I just upped my appointment or called and made an appointment.’”

One of the most difficult things? Divulging her diagnosis. To tell her friends and coworkers, she made cupcakes with the breast cancer ribbon on them.

“I have a positive attitude and such strong prayer, help and support,” Sheila said. “It’s just been quite a journey of emotions. I’ve been getting a lot of strength and support from people and guidance from up above.”

Sheila said sometimes she feels guilty that her prognosis appears better than that of her younger sister. But she has learned nothing in life is certain, and certainly not the  future—hers or Sheri’s.

“I have the guilt part—my sister with her prognosis,” Sheila said. “I tell her to embrace the quality of life, not the quantity, the life she has now with her sons and husband and make memories. Science and technology change every day.”

Sheila feels like she’s in a good place. She takes life one day at a time, but knows the future is not promised.

“Things could change for me,” she said. “But OK, I have today. What can I do? Just feel blessed with what I have.”

That includes a loving and supportive husband, Brian, three children, a daughter-in-law and three grandsons.

When she looks toward the future, she doesn’t see a store-bought picture frame or a mosaic. She sees the special family moments that the frame surrounds, the ones money can’t buy.

“I hope and pray my sister will be able to see her kids graduate,  marry and have kids,” Sheila said. “Yes, we have cancer. But we also have a strong sisterly bond. We will fight this battle stronger, together.”

To request a consultation, second opinion or refer a patient, call 1.855.SHCANCER (855.742.2623).

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Comments (9)

  • What a beautiful heartfelt letter!!!
    We pray God will be with both of you as you travel this hard road!
    Proverbs 3:5-6

  • Ithink of you often, not just because i know you, but because of the wonderful support you are giving your sister. i will pray for you too now Sheila. this is a big bump in the road, but you and your sister canmake it thru. God bless you.

  • Sheila and Sheri are two remarkable women who will set an example for all women.! Your spirit will make this journey so much easier for all. Keep up that positive attitude! Continued prayers are with you! Dolores G. Horan.

  • Sheila has been a rock through her journey. Her positive attitude and joyful spirit have been an inspiration to me.

  • Shelia so sorry on your sister’s passing. I lived across the street from your mother in law. I have the same Doctor as you and dense tissue and spot on my breast. I wish you good luck on your cancer journey

  • Sheila, I was aware of your sisters breast cancer but not of yours. I’m so sorry that she passed on. I’m rooting for you, You are in charge of this and was proactive enough to be on top of it. I know your going to beat this because you are on top of it. I’ll be praying for you and your family. God bless you. Rose Persak

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