Tricia Dunn, left, helped ease Mary Keeley-Herring’s mind when she was considering a mastectomy. Now the sisters are helping friends and strangers by sharing their journeys.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on LiveWellNebraska.com
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By Katy Healey
World-Herald Staff Writer
They call themselves the Booby Sisters.
“We’ll show anybody,” they say.
Well, maybe not anybody. But nearly any woman.
Mary Keeley-Herring was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, and although her younger sister, Tricia Dunn, was not, both opted to have double mastectomies and reconstructive surgery. Now they’re particularly open about the experience, even allowing other women to feel their implants, hoping to make breast cancer a little less scary.
The sisters, who live in Lincoln, grew up in Scottsbluff, Neb., under the shadow of the disease.
It took their cousin in 1985 — she was just 36 — and their aunt five years later. Their mom, Ruthe Keeley, found a precancerous lump in 1988. She opted to have her breasts removed, a model for her daughters. She died in 2010 at age 83.
The sisters knew their risk — it’s higher in women with a family history. They started getting mammograms in their late 20s, more than a decade ahead of schedule, and self-checked each month.
Tricia, 55, used to find lumps almost every year. When she found lump No. 12, the doctor said enough is enough.
Nine in 10 are nothing, he told her, and she’d already exceeded those odds. Scarred breast tissue — from almost a dozen biopsies — made it difficult to get an accurate mammogram, adding to the problem.
So, like her mother, she had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. After the 1997 procedure, waves of relief crashed over her.
“I didn’t realize what a weight that was,” Tricia said.
Mary, 56, was living in Alaska at the time. She moved there for a teaching job in 1983 with her first husband. She later divorced. Tricia wanted Mary to move to Lincoln, where she’d lived with her husband since 1990.
Find me a man, Mary joked, and I’ll move. So Tricia called friends, asking if they knew any eligible bachelors. One suggested a man named Mike.
Mary met Mike on a blind date in July 1998 during one of her visits to see Tricia. They went out for dinner at Carlos O’Kelly’s Mexican Cafe and ended up grabbing a drink at a nearby bar. After she returned to Alaska, the two decided to meet once a month before she eventually married Mike and moved back to Lincoln a year later.
Eleven years after their summer wedding, he encouraged Mary to tell the doctor about her latest lump. She had found four or five lumps before that one surfaced and doctors had drained more than a dozen cysts over the years.
“He took it a little more seriously than I did at the time,” she said.
She made the appointment around Christmas, after Mike finally insisted. Then the doctor called.
“When you hear the word ‘cancer,’ you think you’re going to die,” Mary said. “You think, ‘Oh … this is it.’ ”
Like her mom, like her sister, Mary considered surgery. What would it look like? What would it feel like? The image in her head was disfigured and scarred. So Tricia showed Mary her new breasts.
“Oh, wow,” Mary thought. “That’s not too bad. I could do that. … I was so relieved to see that it wasn’t gross.”
Because she opted for a mastectomy, she did not need chemotherapy or radiation, and semiannual follow-up visits to her oncologists have replaced her yearly mammogram.
Now, the sisters constantly encourage other women, like older sister Colleen Schmidt, to self-check and get annual mammograms.
Tricia’s daughters, who are 26 and 24, have heard the lecture a time or two, as have Mary’s stepdaughters, who are also in their 20s.
So have friends, co-workers, fellow book club members and regulars at their gym. Even strangers in the grocery line, if the sisters overhear talk of a strange lump. Once, Mary joined the conversation and insisted that the woman schedule a doctor’s appointment.
“I’ll watch them make the call,” she said.
The sisters are open books to those who approach them. Their meetings are informal, at one of their houses or the curious woman’s. Sometimes they’re sharing their story with someone they don’t know, a friend of a friend.
The sisters don’t mind unbuttoning to help someone who’s considering surgery.
“When you know that it would help them so much to see what it could look like,” Tricia said, “there’s no apprehension whatsoever.”
She said her breasts are scarred — “they have to cut where they can get in there and dig everything out.” But, she added, “they really look and feel pretty darn natural.”
Tricia and Mary let the women touch the implants, too — Tricia’s are saline; Mary’s are silicone. It’s show and tell, they joke, but point out that their story shouldn’t be confused with medical advice.
There are plenty of women who might benefit from their stories. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 230,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. Today there are more than 2.9 million breast cancer survivors across the country.
“It can help just to see that someone has gone through it and is functioning as a healthy adult again,” said Linda Dempsey, a psychiatric nurse with cancer support services at Creighton University Medical Center who has never worked with the sisters.
“Talking to others can be helpful, but they still need to remember its their own experience, and it won’t be like anybody else’s.”
Some women prefer to keep the diagnosis to themselves or share it with only family and a few friends, Dempsey said, while others are more open about their experience.
The sisters certainly aren’t shy. They threw a “ta-ta to my tatas” party before Mary’s mastectomy in January of 2010. They had boob cupcakes, typically reserved for bachelor parties. Mary found an oversized breast pillow, too. She joked with her friends, asking if she should go “this big,” pointing to the pillow. Of course, everyone wore pink.
“It’s not a bad thing to get it out there and get that support,” Mary said.
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