These Sisters Were Diagnosed with Cancer in the Same Week—and It Only Made Them Stronger

After being diagnosed with breast cancer days apart, Rebecca Hollingsworth and Mary Ellen Hughson are raising money for state-of-the-art equipment that will help women like them.

Rebecca HollingsworthPhoto: Jessica Deeks

Two Sisters Fighting Against Breast Cancer

Rebecca Hollingsworth (pictured) and Mary Ellen Hughson are used to sharing everything. Born four years apart, the sisters grew up as the best of friends in Ottawa before pursuing careers in education and becoming mothers. More recently, they’ve spent early mornings, late evenings and weekends together at the ice rink, watching their five children play competitive hockey.

So when Hollingsworth was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2016 at the age of 44, she immediately thought of her younger sister, who had discovered a small lump on her breast a few months prior.

Hollingsworth took Hughson aside that day. “I said, ‘Mary Ellen, you have to get checked out—I didn’t even have a lump.’” Less than a week later, Hughson was diagnosed with the same disease as her sister: invasive ductal breast cancer. (This woman’s beautiful ode to her sister will change the way you think about people with special needs.)

Healthy eaters and avid volleyball players, the siblings were shocked by their diagnoses, especially since there was no family history of cancer. Extensive DNA testing revealed that their cases weren’t genetic but rather unlikely accidents of fate.

Together, the sisters endured chemotherapy and radiation, lost their hair, and recovered. They’ve since joined forces to raise money to help bring the best in screening technology to the Ottawa Hospital Breast Health Centre, including a specialized imaging machine—the 3 Tesla MRI, which costs $4 million—that’s particularly effective for people with dense breast tissue.

Dr. Jean Seely, head of breast imaging at the Ottawa Hospital, says the state-of-the-art technology can help doctors detect cancer in its earliest stages: “This is the best tool that’s available, and it’s particularly effect­ive in difficult cases.” With its ability to find tumours through dense tissue, the imaging machine can significantly cut down on wait times between diagnosis and treatment.

The sisters aim to raise $250,000 through their Tree of Hope campaign by sharing their story and organizing special events, such as an online auction and a partnership with local hair salons. They’ve already gathered more than $125,000.

“We feel very blessed,” says Hughson. “We had great care and we want to give back. Screening technology can make a difference for someone who finds herself in our position.” (This couple found love on the heart transplant list.)

Hughson and her sister were fortunate to discover their disease before it spread—and it was all thanks to a hockey tournament in Boston.

On a Saturday night in early November 2016, Hollingsworth’s 13-year-old son, Owen, was prepping for an early morning game and insisted that everyone turn out the lights at 8:30 p.m.

Without the usual distractions, Hollingsworth decided to conduct a breast self-exam. While she didn’t find a lump, she did notice that her right breast felt different—“thicker”—than her left. A mammogram later that week revealed a tumour; five smaller tumours then showed up on an MRI.

Hughson’s cancer was trickier to diagnose: her first mammogram didn’t reveal anything definitive, but a follow-up ultrasound and biopsy were conclusive. The cancer was nearing Hughson’s lymph nodes when it was discovered; doctors told her it was about a month away from spreading.

While Hughson credits her sister with saving her life, Hollingsworth thanks Owen: “If my son had let me watch Netflix that night, I wouldn’t have done a breast exam.”

Going through treatment at the same time was both difficult and comforting. For eight months, the sisters talked every day and took turns lifting each other’s spirits.

“I wish Mary Ellen had never experienced cancer, but on some level, it was beautiful that we did this together. She’s my dearest friend,” says Hollingsworth. “It’s unbelievable that such a thing could happen. But it did, we got through it and now we’re on the other side.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada