Blood Bond: Genetic Testing Helps Sisters

Sarah Steinway and Laura Baumann used genetic testing to discover they shared a cancer gene and catch breast cancer with an early diagnosis.

The bond of siblings is special, often filled with unconditional love, secrets, hand-me-downs and the occasional heated argument.

In addition to all of these things, Sarah Steinway, 47, and her sister, Laura Baumann, 51, also shared something scarier—a breast cancer diagnosis.

“I may have saved my sister’s life,” says Sarah, who was the recipient of yearly mammograms since age 26 when she was diagnosed with a fibroadenoma—a noncancerous breast tumor. In January 2016, she discovered another lump in her right breast, and this time it was malignant. She was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer, and after genetic testing, learned she carried a CHEK2 gene mutation. 

“I did not realize how big of a role genetic testing would play in my treatment,” she says. “Not much was known about CHEK2 at that time, but I was told that this type of mutation could increase a person’s risk for developing breast cancer.”

She was seen by Jennifer Hopper, lead counselor for the Hereditary Cancer Program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who works very closely with the University of Cincinnati (UC) Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Center. Jennifer recommended that all of Sarah’s children and siblings be tested for the gene.

 

Laura says that after receiving advice from her little sister to seek genetic counseling, she planned to have the testing done-but not before seeing her only daughter walk down the aisle at her wedding. 

“I just didn’t want the results weighing on me,” she says. “I wanted to enjoy my daughter’s big day and just focus on her.”

Laura did go through with genetic testing and in Nov. 2016—parallel to her sister completing chemotherapy, undergoing a double mastectomy and radiation treatment—she discovered she had the same mutation. 

“It really helped in setting up a game plan,” she says. “I felt more prepared with this knowledge.”

Knowing she had this gene mutation changed her screening process for yearly breast cancer detection, and Laura began receiving diagnostic mammograms, followed by an MRI, six months later. It didn’t stop her from focusing on her sister.

“(Laura) was there for me throughout all of my treatment,” Sarah says. “I had a great support system.”

She was able to return the favor when Laura was diagnosed with a stage 0 breast cancer in July 2017, and the sisters got to share something else: a cancer care team. 

“Dr. (Elyse) Lower was my oncologist, Dr. (Elizabeth) Shaughnessy was my surgeon and Dr. (William) Barrett handled my radiation,” Sarah says. “I don’t believe a patient could have had the same type of positive experience I had at UC anywhere else. I truly believe I had some of the best cancer providers in the city.”

“It made it easy for me as well because when it was time for my treatment I said, ‘I want her (Lower), and her (Shaughnessy), and him (Barrett) to be on my team,’ and Anndee (Meyer), my nurse navigator said, ‘We can do that.’”

She says knowing her sister’s core team of doctors really helped her through the process.

“Knowing the excellent care Sarah was provided made my journey easier,” Laura says. “I fully trusted the team of doctors because the trust had already been built.”

Laura decided to have a lumpectomy followed by radiation for her cancer. 

“By being able to identify the mutation through genetic testing, we were able to be proactive and get a baseline using MRI,” she says. “I could have gone years before my cancer was detected by mammograms because of the dense breast tissue that I have.”

Throughout it all, the sisters gained a bit of perspective as they witnessed each other’s journey—both experiences being different even with the same mutated gene.

“It was honestly easier for me to be the patient than to watch my sister go through her journey,” Laura says. “The mindset with my diagnosis was always that I needed to take care of what needed to be done to move forward and get better, but it was difficult as I watched my sister going through chemotherapy. I couldn’t take her pain away.

“Growing up, Sarah was sort of black and white about everything, and I was many shades of grey. I was always telling her to relax. But when she was going through her cancer treatment, I turned into Mama Bear. I wanted to be protective and help her any way possible.”

Sarah says she believes she served as the guiding light to her big sister.

“I was there to answer her questions—I think I was an inspiration to her,” she adds.

Now, with their cancers in remission, the sisters continue to support each other in everything they do; they talk at least once a day, see each other often and take nothing for granted. 

They also continue to share their gratitude for the team that brought them through it all.

“For as bad as a cancer diagnosis is, I loved meeting the people at the UC Health Barrett Cancer Institute, and I almost didn’t want to stop coming to see them,” Sarah says. “The physicians and staff are just phenomenal; you develop connections with each and every one of them, connections that helped me get to where I am today—a breast cancer survivor.”

The UC Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Center is hosting a free educational event: “Beyond the Breast Cancer: The Path To Empowerment,” from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 3, for patients, families and interested members of the community. Experts will discuss the latest in breast cancer treatment, research, genetic testing and more. Lunch will be provided.

To register, visit https://uchealth.com/events/beyondbreastcancer/.

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