Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sisters of Hope survival guide

Cancer strikes family multiple times

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She wondered if I would remember her.

Of course, I did.

How could I forget Krystal Simpson and the story I'd written more than a decade ago about the Sisters of Hope, as I like to call them?

Obviously, she hadn't forgotten me, either.

"I just recently heard you were battling colon cancer," Krystal wrote in an email sent in mid-January, "and I wanted to first tell you our thoughts and prayers are with you."

She also wanted to tell me something else. She wanted to share what had happened in the 11 years since I had first written about Krystal, Tara and Nicole Stratton, as they were all known before being married.

In 2002, the column, and the cautionary tale that went with it, made front page news. It told of how the youngest sister, Nicole, had seen four physicians over two years, all of whom assured her the ever-growing lump on her breast was "nothing." Ultimately, Nicole would be diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, and tell other women who find lumps on their breasts to never take "nothing" for a doctor's answer.

Nicole was only 29 back then.

What made it all the more heart-wrenching was the emotional whiplash of Nicole's biopsy results arriving on the same day in May that her daughter, Kate, was born. That and the sisters' story of being orphaned as youung adults after their mother, Audrey, died of colon cancer in 1987 and their doctor dad, the highly respected dermatologist Tim Stratton, had a fatal heart attack in 1994.

Nicole was only 13 when her mom died and it would be largely left to Tara and Krystal to act as the mother they all still needed, but no longer had.

Which brings us to the rest of the story, the update Krystal shared in her email.

As it turned out, a year after Nicole was diagnosed, Tara was also diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and underwent the same six gruelling rounds of chemotherapy, plus 30 radiation treatments.

"The cancer treatments left them weak, vulnerable and scared," Krystal recalled, "and I watched in awe as they fought their way back to life and helped them celebrate each year that passed cancer-free."

Then it happened again.

Just days before her 37th birthday, Krystal received the same diagnosis.

Three sisters, three Stage 3 breast cancer diagnoses, three identical regimes of treatment.

And through it all, the sisters were there to support each other, just as they had been when they lost their parents.

As it turned out, that experience of being there for her two sisters was especially important for the middle sister, the last to be diagnosed.

Krystal said there were times, during the fifth round of chemo, when her self-confidence began to disappear like her hair, she wondered if dying would be easier than what she was going through. But her calm and reassuring sisters gave her the strength she didn't think she had.

"Just knowing they got through it helped me," Krystal said last weekend, when we all gathered at Nicole's North Kildonan home.

The sisters are all in their early- to mid-40s now. Nicole has been cancer-free for almost 11 years, Tara nearly 10 and Krystal just passed the six-year mark.

"The fact that we're all still here," Krystal said, "fills us with gratitude every day."

"You cling on to the hope," Tara said, "and that's what carries you through."

And women in general have reason to be hopeful when it comes to surviving breast cancer, because while the number of cases has increased since the 1980s, the death rate has declined. The five-year survival rate was 88 per cent between 2004 and 2006, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

For Tara, Krystal and Nicole, that kind of hope extends to more than themselves, of course.

Tara doesn't have children, but Nicole has Kate, the baby born when Nicole was diagnosed, and Krystal has two more daughters and is pregnant with a third, which she considers a miracle, given the chemo treatments she endured.

I asked Krystal if they had selected a name for her, and when she said no, I offered the word that Tara has tattooed on the back of her neck: "Hope."

Krystal smiled.

We all smiled.

Funny how one word tends to do that for cancer survivors, like the Sisters of Hope.

And me.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 B1


Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 9:34 AM CST: corrects "teenagers" to "young adults," corrects reference to "dad" to reference to "mom."

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