Surgery and sisterhood

Two sisters grew up sharing everything — even the gene for a deadly disease. By fighting it together, they joined a small but growing number of patients teaming up for surgery

  • Sisters Kathy Murn Drake, 46, of Ellicott City (left) and Julie Smith, 43, of Baltimore decided to have hysterectomies at the same time after learning that they both have the breast cancer gene.
Sisters Kathy Murn Drake, 46, of Ellicott City (left) and Julie… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
November 24, 2010|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

When she was a little girl, if a bad dream would wake her up in the middle of the night, Julie Murn would pad down the hall of the silent house to her big sister's room. She'd crawl into Kathy's bed, grab hold of her nightgown and hold tight. "Just," she says, "to make sure she was there."

And she always was.

The sisters have been together, one way or another, for as long as either one can remember. Born 18 months apart, they fill page after page of their family's worn albums with impish grins and exuberant poses — familiar pages they revisited recently, sitting knee to knee on Julie's living room sofa, giggling and groaning as steam curled from their coffee mugs.

If Kathy was boss and rule-maker, tomboy Julie happily assumed the role of smitten follower and occasional instigator. They were, from the start, a good team, built to last through backyard fort-building, first-car fender-benders, college in different cities, velvet bridesmaid dresses, kids of their own and, most recently, through what has become their most challenging familial test — realizing that they shared the breast cancer gene.

With that knowledge, the sisters not only drew closer than ever, but decided to embark together into a world most people face entirely alone — one of stark physicians' offices and needle pricks, gurneys and grim phone calls.

They're among a tiny but apparently growing number of people who choose to have surgery together.

"It made sense, going together," says Julie Smith, a 44-year-old mother of two who lives in Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood. Kathy Murn Drake, who's 46 and an arbitration organizer living in Ellicott City, adds: "It's the big-sister, little-sister thing."

The sisters grew up in Baltimore in the 1960s and '70s, the only children of Elizabeth and Jack Murn. Their affection for one another registers clearly, even in faded snapshots, and especially in the easy way they retell the stories behind the pictures.

There they were, hair chopped into pixie cuts — the time they squished onto a shelf, right above the Crisco, in a cabinet of their mother's kitchen. And there's the puppy — the fluffy thing their parents locked into the powder room for a Christmas surprise-turned-teary when they heard whining behind the door and assumed a holiday elf had been trapped.

They were the girls who played badminton in the street, tailored tissues into Barbie couture and ran shrieking through the grand halls of the Baltimore Museum of Art as if it were their own personal amusement park.

They grew up tall and photogenic, and when they got married — just three months apart — each chose the other as maid of honor. Julie named her little girl Kathleen.

When the sisters were in college, their mother found out she had breast cancer. They don't remember the time particularly vividly. Just a phone call and then some scary moments. It seemed to be over fast. A straightforward lumpectomy followed quietly, some years later, with a full mastectomy after too many more worrisome lumps and cysts.

Julie remembers wondering to herself then if somewhere inside herself she had the courage to make that choice — if she had what it took to answer a vague threat with such a bold, irrevocable, identity-shaking move of defense. "Would I be brave enough to do it?" She wasn't sure.

For 20 years, neither sister thought any more about it.

That's when Julie's doctor, after hearing that her mother and grandmother had breast cancer, urged her to find out if the danger ran in her family. If her mother had the mutated gene known as BRCA1 or BRCA2, it might have been passed to her.

Or Kathy.

Shaken, Julie worked on her mother to be tested for the bad gene. Living in Florida now and fighting lung cancer, her mom required some convincing. But she did eventually go — and the news for her daughters wasn't good.

Here Kathy and Julie might have gone their separate ways — deciding on their own to be tested, or not. But that wasn't their style. Woman-to-woman moral support was. Together they wrestled with the idea of knowing. What would they do with potentially life-changing information? Living in uneasy ignorance didn't sound like a great option either.

Fortitude won. And Julie made a March appointment for two.

As vibrant, still-young women who lived more or less the blameless, low-fat, smoke-free, athletic-shoe lives they were told they should, as upsetting as all of this was, the sisters still considered themselves healthy and — in a way — safe. This sort of trouble happened to other people.

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