ASHVILLE, Pa. (AP) — When Gertrude Coleman Wirfel of New Germany was diagnosed with cancer after discovering a lump in her breast in 1983, her sisters all became more vigilant in their annual screenings and self-exams.
Wirfel's cancer was found early enough that a mastectomy, with no follow-up radiation, allowed her to survive cancer-free until she died of other causes in 2004, at the age of 81.
"She lived a long time," her sister, Bernetta Martin of Beaverdale, said. "She was a true survivor. She did not ever have cancer again."
Martin and Elizabeth Hollen of Ashville say the heightened awareness paid off when cancer was diagnosed at its earliest stage in three more sisters.
"The earlier you find it, the better it's going to be," Martin said at Hollen's farmhouse on Colonel Drake Highway near Ashville.
Martin was the next sister struck with breast cancer. Her cancer was discovered during a routine mammogram in 1997.
Like her older sister, Martin was 61 when she was diagnosed.
Martin's diagnosis came while she was helping care for her daughter, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer a year earlier. Barbara Jean Pokus was 38 when the cancer was found and died the following year.
Although she tried to be conscientious with her screening schedule, Martin admits "I would maybe miss one year." But her daughter and family doctor made her promise to get a mammogram that year.
"I was really shocked," Martin said. "I was not expecting anything."
Martin had a lumpectomy by Dr. Patti Ann Stefanick in Johns-town and completed regimens of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She remains cancer free.
The radiation therapy was hard, she admits.
"It made me very tired and made my voice deep and raspy," Martin said.
"I would take my radiation for five days, Monday to Friday, and then I'd go down to Pittsburgh and take care of my daughter."
Their sister, Sara Marchand of West Blackton, Ala., was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 after a routine mammogram. After a mastectomy and some follow-up medicine, she has remained cancer free.
Hollen is the latest to learn she has breast cancer. The 81-year-old had a mastectomy on Dec. 12 in Altoona.
"They checked the sentinel node and there was no cancer in it,"?Hollen said. "So I did not have to have radiation or chemotherapy."
Martin and Hollen say the sisters are united in urging friends and relatives to schedule annual mammograms and do monthly self-exams.
But they admit each dealt with the cancer in her own way. Neither remembers their sister Gertrude talking about her cancer, for instance.
"We are really private people," Martin said. "We don't talk about things. We don't want people to think we are sick. We don't like to be sick."
They grew up on a Cambria County farm in a family of 11 children, four boys and seven girls. Their father died when Hollen was 14 and Martin was 10.
"Our mother was very strong,"?Martin said. "She had to be strong. She taught us to be strong."
Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com