Sisters face breast cancer shock just 6 weeks apart: 'What are the chances?'

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When Brisbane sisters Aisling and Margaret Cunningham decided to launch a business together, never could they have imagined they'd also end up having to support each other through their own individual breast cancer shocks just six weeks apart.

The single mums, aged 49 and 46 respectively, were both diagnosed with separate breast cancers by complete coincidence and are sharing their journey in the hopes of encouraging women to get regular mammograms and breast checks from when they turn 40.

Sisters Aisling and Margaret Cunningham
Sisters Aisling and Margaret Cunningham fought breast cancer together. Photo: Supplied

Mum-of-two Margaret was the first to get diagnosed in August last year, after noticing a significant change to her breasts.

"It was very visual I could see it," Margaret tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "So I saw my GP and he got me an urgent appointment the next day to The Wesley Breast Clinic in Brisbane. That day, I was pretty much told that they were 99 per cent sure it was breast cancer."

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Tests confirmed the diagnosis of Lobular breast cancer (also called invasive lobular carcinoma) which is a type of breast cancer that begins in the milk-producing glands. What followed was six months of chemotherapy, two lots of surgery in January, and another 30 radiation sessions which Margaret had to do daily, until she completed her treatment in April.

"It all happened very quick at the start," she says, adding she is now on prescription medication and awaiting hip replacement surgery due to an unfortunate side affect of the chemo called Avascular necrosis.

Margaret Cunningham having chemotherapy
Mum-of-two Margaret was the first to get diagnosed with breast cancer. Photo: Supplied

"But the prognosis is good. I'll have yearly check ups. When we first met the oncologist, she was such a positive person to keep reminding us you know, it's curable, we are going to get better," Margaret adds.

When Margaret was first diagnosed Aisling, who has one young daughter, was determined to help look after her sister, especially as they were both single mums and trying to launch a business.

"I thought I would be able to take it all on, but it was just six weeks after Margaret's diagnosis, that I got my diagnosis," Aisling tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

"I'd gone in for a mammogram and an ultrasound. And they biopsied something that day, and everyone said, 'Don't worry, you'll be fine. What are the chances of you both having it'.

"But I just had this sort of gut feeling."

Indeed, Aisling's diagnosis also came back as breast cancer - though hers was a different type called Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), or infiltrating ductal carcinoma, which is the most common type of breast cancer.

"It's not genetic. So it is just a coincidence. I think everyone, even all the medical team were quite shocked by it as well," she tells us.

Aisling Cunningham receives cancer treatment
Aisling's diagnosis came just six weeks after her sister. Photo: Supplied

And so Aisling and Margaret were both being treated for cancer at the same time.

"We had treatments sort of at the same time, but we did things differently. I had surgery first while she was getting her chemotherapy," Aisling explains, adding she underwent a double mastectomy, followed by three months of chemotherapy.

"I'm now on the hormone blocker treatments as well. I didn't need radiation because I've had the mastectomy. So my treatment was a little bit shorter than Margaret's but still not nice."

Throughout it all, the sisters were able to support each other as best they could

"We also live right next to each other, so it has been good that we could support each other through it with the kids as well. The kids would come to me or when I wasn't feeling well they might go into her," Aisling says.

"We sort of felt unwell at different times. So it kind of worked well in that way that one of us could be supportive of the other."

And in the middle of it all, they decided to go ahead with launching their business Lula Eye Mask, an idea Margaret had come up with before either of them were diagnosed with cancer.

"We thought, let's do this. That sounds great. And we had actually just gotten our first sample I think the week Margaret was diagnosed," Aisling says.

"But we had the samples so that's when I decided, don't worry, we can still do this because she was so passionate about it and I just said I won't let your cancer stop us. 

"Of course then I got my diagnosis, but we still we had had the samples and we just loved them. We started using them throughout our treatments.

"That was actually perfect in a way that we became our best customers really, like when we couldn't sleep at night, or both of us took them to the hospital when we had our surgeries and on our chemo days. So we fell in love with them. More than we ever thought we weren't, we didn't realise how much we would need them."

Lula Eye Mask
Lula Eye Mask was officially launched in July this year. Photo: Supplied

The treatments may have pushed their plans by about eight months, but in July this year the sisters launched Lula Eye Mask - a self-warming eye mask, hoping to inspire self-care for busy women.

"I think we needed a distraction because we have little kids as well they're under 11 we're all consumed by their auntie and mom having cancer and you know, we could have talked about cancer 24 seven, going through it and I think the business ended up being a joy for us and for our family," Aisling admits.

And Margaret adds: "We did also have a lot of wonderful support from the community so that we were able to get through the rough parts of our treatment, we had people cooking for us, we were so lucky that we were supported."

Both women have been blown away by the response to their product - particularly from others who may be facing a similar journey themselves.

"Our product has resonated with so many people going through cancer or with family members," Aisling says.

"Even though it's a product that anybody can use, we've got lovely messages where people have been using it during chemo or during some treatments, or they know someone and they want to send it to them.

"It's been nice to be able to talk to other people who are going through treatments as well and we're hoping that we can help people through that as well."

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