‘I Had Always Known … I Would Wind Up With Cancer’

Having lost several family members to cancer, Shirley was determined to not allow her breast cancer diagnosis to take her away from her loved ones.

A Not-Unexpected Breast Cancer Diagnosis: When Cancer Runs in the Family

Thanks to a deep family history of cancer, Shirley assumed she’d face the disease someday, too. What she didn’t expect: a breast cancer diagnosis when she was only 40.

“It’s difficult to anticipate how you’re going to react when you receive a cancer diagnosis,” says Shirley Eosso, who learned in 2019 that she had breast cancer. In a way, though, Shirley was more prepared than many women in her situation, given her family’s history: Cancer had taken both of her maternal grandparents, as well as her father and baby brother.

Because of that history, Shirley says, “I had always known — or always felt — at some point in my life I would wind up with cancer.” She just didn’t think it would happen at only 40. She was a wife and a mom to two young boys, with a career she loved.

None of the cancers that had taken her family members were inherited types. Even though Shirley didn’t “get” breast cancer from someone else, though, losing loved ones to cancer did leave her with something else: a foundation of fortitude she was able to tap into as she went through chemotherapy, mastectomy, and breast reconstruction.

“I needed to be very aware of how I dealt with [my breast cancer treatment],” Shirley says. “I was really careful about when and how I was grieving and thinking through and processing.”

To that end, she connected regularly with two therapists and leaned on others for help and support. “It’s important to know that there are people that have taken this journey before you,” she says, “and to be welcomed in by others to the club that no one wants to be a part of. It gave me more power to make choices and decisions.”

In particular, Shirley turned to her mom, Joanne, who had experienced the same losses to cancer — both of her parents, her husband, and her baby. “My mom has been a great example of how to stay strong through cancer,” Shirley says. “She has so much knowledge. She has so much compassion. I couldn’t have done it without her.”

“I knew I could do it,” she adds. “During my cancer journey, I kept saying to myself, This is not my story. This is not how I die. This is not when I die. I will be here for my boys. This is not how I see my story ending.

Shirley’s treatment was successful: She has no evidence of cancer in her body, and she’s able to look back on her experience with both pride and insight for other women facing a breast cancer diagnosis.

“You go to the doctors and you get as much information as you possibly can,” she advises. “You make decisions with the best information that you have. It’s not going to be easy, but just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep going.”

And if, like Shirley, cancer runs in your family, use that legacy to help you through. “You are stronger than you know, and you handle what you have to handle,” she says. “I made it through, and in some weird way, I’m proud of myself to show that strength.”

4 Steps to Take If You Have a Family History of Cancer

In a study published in Preventive Medicine in June 2022, more than 35 percent of adults said they had at least one first-degree relative — a parent, child, or sibling — who’d had cancer. If cancer runs in your family and you’re a member of this group, it’s important that you take key steps to prevent developing it yourself, or at least make sure you catch the cancer early.

  1. Learn about your family history and share it with your doctor. If you haven’t already, talk to your primary care provider about the types of cancer your family members have had and how each person is related to you.
  2. Get regular screenings and checkups. Your doctor will likely suggest you have screenings earlier and more often than is standard. For example, if you have a family history of colon cancer, they may advise you to have your first colonoscopy before age 45, which is the standard recommendation.
  3. Consider genetic testing. This will help determine if you might have a genetic mutation that puts you at a higher-than-normal risk of cancer. Note that such a mutation doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop cancer, but depending on your test results and other factors, it may make sense to take precautionary measures, such as a prophylactic mastectomy.
  4. Live a healthy lifestyle. If you smoke, quitting can greatly reduce your risk of many types of cancer, not just lung cancer. About 1 in 5 cases of cancer are due to excess body weight, poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and consuming too much alcohol, according to the American Cancer Society. Taking measures to address these issues, if they apply to you, can help lower your risk of cancer. Wearing sunscreen every day, even when it’s cloudy out, can protect you from skin cancer.