Kathleen, Brenda and Angel O’Brien. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Sunshine O’Brien.

Beginning in 2005, Idyllwild part-time resident and desert real estate agent Kathleen Sunshine O’Brien helped first one, then in 2011 another sister through breast cancer surgeries and post-operative treatments. By October, 2011, her savings, schedule and stamina had been exhausted when she learned that she had stage three breast cancer. Only a month ago, on Jan. 29, Kathleen underwent her own double mastectomy surgery.
Kathleen after her January 29 surgery. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Sunshine O’Brien.

In retrospect, the writing had been clearly on the wall, said O’Brien. Her mother, great-grandmother, and other relatives in Michigan and Minnesota all had developed breast cancer. Her mother was diagnosed at age 38, her great-grandmother at 52. A Minnesota relative had a double mastectomy while in her 80’s.

From the age of 29, Kathleen religiously had mammograms. Then in 2005, she had a cancer genetics test, which returned a positive result for the BRCA gene. O’Brien recommends all women with genetic predisposition and family breast cancer history have this non-invasive test.

She was told at the time of her positive test that she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer. A cancer-fighting medication was prescribed, but when Kathleen read the side effects associated with the medication, she decided not to take it. And as first her sister Brenda, then sister Angel developed cancer, Kathleen thought it increasingly unlikely she would develop the same disease. “I mean, how possible could it be that all three of us would develop the same cancer?” she thought. Also, with each sister’s successive diagnosis, surgeries and post-operative treatments, Kathleen became more and more involved in assisting them and had little time to think about herself.

The O’Brien sisters are beautiful women. Each has achieved distinction in their own fields. Kathleen is herself a champion track and field athlete. She said she had always believed she and her sisters could face anything. “I was on the U.S. Track Team,” she said. “I know about teams.” But then Brenda’s cancer, then Angel’s, and finally her own severely tested Team O’Brien’s spirit.

The O’Brien sisters are determined to use their unlikely story to help other women — to alert them to the need to research and understand family histories, and especially to demand to be shown their mammogram images and have a radiologist explain them while both patient and doctor are looking at the same pictures.

“All women should have the right to see their radiologist, and their mammogram films, not just a written report,” said O’Brien. She had mammograms in 2010 and in 2011. At the time, she was told she had nothing to worry about, only that she had some “calcification.”

But Kathleen had read that calcification, when it occurs in clusters and is visible in a mammogram image, is a strong indicator of cancer. She asked the doctor to put the 2010 and 2011 images on the screen and told him about her sisters and her family’s breast cancer history.

After hearing the family history and reexamining the clustered calcification, the doctor said, “That changes everything,” Kathleen recounted. “They did a biopsy and the next day I had full-blown invasive breast cancer,” she said.

Even now, while in the beginning stages of post operative treatment, Kathleen is making the rounds of talk shows and media interviews to spread awareness to women about the need to be demanding in matters of their own health, to be clear with doctors that they have rights to all tests and information regarding their health, and not be passive recipients of doctor’s words.

She is also raising money for her and her sisters’ ongoing treatment and to pay past medical bills. “We’re selling for $20 the t-shirts we are wearing in the picture I sent you,” she said. “People can also go to our Facebook page, ‘Three Sisters Survival,’ to get the bank information where they can make donations. They can also call me at (760) 423-9652 or e-mail me at [email protected].” Kathleen said that all Wells Fargo bank branches can now index Three Sisters Survival and the account information for making donations will come up.

The National Cancer Institute reports that the overall incidence of breast cancer is 124 per 100,000 women. From 2004-2008, the median age at diagnosis for cancer of the breast was 61 years of age. Approximately 0.0 percent were diagnosed under age 20; 1.9 percent between 20 and 34; 10.2 percent between 35 and 44; 22.6 percent between 45 and 54; 24.4 percent between 55 and 64; 19.7 percent between 65 and 74; 15.5 percent between 75 and 84; and 5.6 percent 85+ years of age.

Even with these statistics, what the O’Brien sisters experienced strains believability.