MARIETTA - Siblings often share a long list of life experiences.
For Marietta resident Kathy Buffington, the oldest of three sisters, sharing almost identically timed battles with breast cancer happened to be one of those experiences.
"My middle sister was first," recalled Buffington, whose middle sister, Joyce Cox, was diagnosed in December 2008.
When Buffington, 57, experienced a rapid weight loss just months later, she decided to get herself checked. Her cancer was diagnosed in March 2009 and just a few months later her youngest sister, Melissa Lynch, was diagnosed as well.
Though the sisters spanned a 10-year age difference, all three were diagnosed within a six-month time frame and were at similar stages of progression. Doctors assumed genetics played a role, but both of Buffington's sisters tested negatively for mutations in their BRCA genes. According to the National Cancer Institute, mutation of these genes has been linked to hereditary breast cancer.
Additionally, Buffington's 81-year-old mother has never had breast or any other form of cancer.
"I think I felt worse for her than I did for all three of us," said Buffington of her mother.
With two children of her own, Buffington could not imagine learning that one child had cancer, let alone both.
"Being a mother, that hit really hard," she said.
Often when siblings are diagnosed around the same time, it is because the first diagnosis sparked a warning flare for the other siblings, said Dr. Michael Galloway, a radiation oncologist at Camden Clark Medical Center.
"It increases the awareness when a sibling is diagnosed, and often the other siblings will become much more vigilant about mammograms or self exams," said Galloway.
However, Galloway noted that it was unusual for three siblings to be at similar stages of development at the same time.
Buffington, who works as a lab technician at Marietta Gynecological Associates, is hesitant to speculate about the unlikely timing.
"If I had to explain it, I might guess that maybe we were all exposed to something harmful around the same time," said Buffington.
Some risk factors for breast cancer are less clear cut than others, and environmental factors happen to be in the gray area, said Galloway.
"We live in a chemical valley. Any of the things we have drunk in the water or eaten in our foods could increase the risk factor. It is definitely possible," said Galloway.
Support from Buffington's mother and her two sisters were what made the experience easier to cope with.
"You know, it wasn't ideal, but going through it with my sisters made it easier," said Buffington.
Communicating a lot gave the sisters a better, more candid idea of what experiences were in store for them. Deciding what treatments to pursue is very personal, but discussing options and helping each other decide was helpful for the sisters, said Buffington.
Though each of the three women's treatment has varied, all three have now had a double mastectomy and come out on the other side cancer free, and Buffington is confident that she and her sisters will remain that way.
"It has been three and a half years. They say if you do not have a recurrence for five years, your chances really go down," she said.