Dover twin sisters share story of breast cancer survival

Breast cancer survivors Natasha Simms, far left, and her twin sister, Lynette Shannon, second from left, launched a support group for women of color, “My Sister’s Keeper” in March. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — Twin sisters Natasha Simms and Lynette Shannon share the same birthday, but they celebrate another major milestone on different dates.

For Ms. Simms, its Oct. 15, 2012; for her sister, it’s Sept. 22, 2009.

That’s the anniversary that each became a survivor of breast cancer.

Lynnette Shannon

Ms. Shannon was 27 when she learned the lump under her arm was cancerous. Her sister was 30 when she was diagnosed.

They’ll be 36 this month and they are cancer free.

The Kent County women visit their oncologists every six months, have PET scans once a year and get regular lab work.

“After five years, your chances of it coming back are a lot less,” Ms. Shannon said.

That doesn’t ease the anxiety when tests are due or an ailment arises.

Ms. Simms said a persistent headache can set off a worry that she’s got brain cancer, a chest pain lung cancer. While she laughs at that extreme response, she acknowledges that surviving cancer can bring that line of thinking. “Cancer isn’t just a physical fight. It’s a mental fight,” she said.

One best fought, they believe, with positive thinking, faith in God and a strong support system. They don’t say they are in remission to define their health status.

“We’re cancer free,” they both said, in near unison during an interview last month.

“We believe you speak things into existence,” Ms. Simms explained.

The circumstances of when and how the sisters learned they had cancer, and how it was treated differ slightly. But many elements are similar. They both lost their hair and both had double mastectomies and surgery to reconstruct their breasts.

IF YOU GO
What: My Sister’s Keeper support group for women of color at any stage of life going through and surviving breast cancer
When: Second Tuesday of each month from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Where: Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition Dover Office, 165 Commerce Way, Suite 2
Call: To register, call Lois at (302) 672-6435 or email lwilkinson@debreastcancer.org

Both carry an inherited gene mutation known as BRCA1, which can lead to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

While Ms. Shannon is married, her sister is divorced. Being single and experiencing the physical side effects of hair loss and reconstructive surgery brought different challenges.

“It’s about building up your self esteem,” said Ms. Simms, who is the older sister by five minutes.

She chose to “wear my hair bald.”

That was an adjustment. “I lost a lot of what I thought made me who I was. It humbles you,” she said. “It made me pull on my inner strength.”

Ms. Shannon wore a wig or hat in public, not because she didn’t like how she looked bald — “because I have a nice shaped head” — but because she didn’t want to talk about the cancer or her experiences with strangers at that time.

Ms. Simms credits her ability to get through her journey with grace and courage because she watched her sister do it.

“I don’t think I would have made it,” she said, if she was diagnosed first. “I saw my sister make it.”

“My sister did it. I can do it, too.”

She wanted to give that power to other women, which led to the support group that they launched in March through the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition. “My Sister’s Keeper” is for women of color. The monthly gatherings have drawn a steady group of women of all ages.

“You need support to survive,” Ms. Simms said.

Ms. Shannon said she was inspired to be a mentor by the women who called and shared their experiences with her, especially in the early days of her diagnosis — “even when I didn’t want to talk to them.”

“I just want to save someone else’s life and encourage someone,” she said.

When they were diagnosed at the young ages of 27 and 30, they used the support services available through the coalition, but they were hard-pressed to find peer mentors who could speak to their personal situations. While women could tell them about treatment side effects and diet, they didn’t know about juggling treatments with raising children.

“We’ve come a long way with lace front wigs,” Ms. Shannon said, recalling a well-meaning nurse who first showed her some wigs.

“It was Betty Rubble,” she said, laughing. “It was black hair for a white woman.”

Natasha Simms

That’s the kind of story that will bring tears of laughter at the support group, which ranges in age from women in their 20s to 70s.

Those members may shed tears of sadness, too, but the goal is to share experiences, camaraderie and information. “My Sister’s Keeper” has hosted a paint night and a yoga instructor. They’ve talked about lymphadema, makeup and nutrition.

“It’s a sisterhood,” Ms. Simms said. “If you keep your story to yourself, you’re not helping nobody. Once you get comfortable to tell your story — share it.”

Prioritizing life

A cancer diagnosis, both sisters said, makes you face your mortality and prioritize what’s important in life. They want women to “fight, endure, survive” and “get rid of all the negative stuff” in their lives, from people to time commitments that aren’t worth it.

“That’s stress,” Ms. Simms said, “And stress will kill you.”

HOW TO HELP
Breast cancer survivors know firsthand what people need when they are first diagnosed with the disease and when they are going through treatment. They offered the following advice for how to help:
• Offer support. Sometimes people won’t want it, but make the offer.
• If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything.
• Listen. Let the person lead you in how you respond and provide comfort.
• Ask what they need.
• Give gift cards for gas, food and pharmacies.
• Call periodically to check in and ask what they need.
• Ask a person how they are doing and feeling, but don’t pry.
• Look out for caregivers and see what they need in caring for a loved one with breast cancer.
• Reach out to the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, which can offer resources and help for both patients and caregivers.
• Raise money. Participate in events that will fund cancer awareness and a cure.
For patients:
• Know that it’s OK to cry.
• Accept help. Let someone do your laundry, pick up your medications, babysit your children and drive you to an appointment.
• Talk to someone else who has had breast cancer, who has answers and firsthand knowledge.
• Listen to your gut and be your own advocate.
• For a detailed list of ideas and resources, visit debreastcancer.org/recently_diagnosed/ when_someone_you_love_is_diagnosed

“I’m thankful for every minute I have.”

Her close friend, Shanika Speller-Clark, died last year after her breast cancer returned. “I had survivor’s remorse,” Ms. Simms said. “It makes you appreciate life.”

Ms. Shannon added, “And the people you have.”

In addition to breast cancer outreach through the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, each is involved in other community service areas.

“We serve,” they said, a trait they get from their mother, Debra Simms.

Ms. Shannon is active in her church, Ecclesia Family Worship Center, whose leaders and congregation she credits to helping her get through diagnosis and treatment. Someone accompanied her to every appointment she had during the course of her treatment.

Ms. Simms works in the community, mentoring adolescents and teens, especially young women.

And the sisters are mothers with full-time careers.

Ms. Shannon and her husband, Malcolm, have a son, Malcolm, 10. Ms. Simms has two sons, Malachi, 16, and Nathaniel, 8, and two daughters, Shaygna, 15, and Shaun, 12.

But there may be room for more projects. With the support group well underway, Ms. Simms wants to write a book and when she explained that plan, her sister responded with a pointed look.

“She always has ten thousand ideas and I’m the person who has to say, ‘Let’s perfect one thing and let’s get it done,’” Ms. Shannon explained.

Ms. Simms listened to that summation and seemed to agree with her sister — for now.

“We’re young, African-American women. We’re twin sisters. We both went through breast cancer. We both survived and we both want to help people,” Ms. Simms said. “If we were blessed to have that experience and live with it, we need to help others.”

Ms. Shannon listened and then nodded in agreement.

Ashley Dawson is managing editor of the Delaware State News. Email adawson@newszap.com.

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