Two sisters who were diagnosed with breast cancer within six weeks of each other have revealed how they worked together to beat the disease.
Aisling, 50, and Margaret Cunningham, 46, from Brisbane, received the earth-shattering news in August 2020.
Margaret was standing in front of the mirror when she noticed for the first time in her life that one of her breasts looked very different from the other.
She immediately saw her doctor, and tests later revealed she had lobular breast cancer, a type of hormone-positive breast cancer that begins in the mammary glands.
Aisling, 50, left, and Margaret, 46, right, Cunningham were diagnosed with cancer within six weeks of each other in an earth-shattering case
The sisters, who are both single mothers, tackled the disease and the treatments together – and helped each other with childcare when they could
Margaret started treatment immediately and immediately alerted her family, including her mother and two sisters, to be checked for cancer.
To their horror, Aisling had too. She was diagnosed with another type of breast cancer known as invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type.
The sisters, who are both single mothers and live next door to each other, said it was a blessing to be diagnosed just weeks apart.
“When Margaret was doing her chemotherapy I was having surgery and when I was doing my chemotherapy she was having surgery,” Aisling said.
“So we could be there for each other and be there for the kids.”
The sisters first told FEMAIL their story a year ago – but there have been complications since then.
Margaret has had both hips replaced – after they became weak in 2021 and eventually collapsed from the intense chemotherapy.
Her hip pain started during chemo, but she ignored it, assuming it was part of normal cancer pain since everything hurt.
Aisling was diagnosed with cancer after Margaret asked her to be checked out following her own diagnosis
But when the pain became unbearable, she went for a scan – despite her ‘fragility’.
“I was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, but I was so relieved that it was something else and not cancer,” she said.
The new medical problem meant that blood could not get to the hips properly, causing them to become weak.
Her doctors tried to delay the replacements by giving Margaret bone-strengthening drugs, but one by one the hips collapsed.
“When I came in to have the first one done, the nurse said she thought my year of birth must have been a typo because I’m quite young to have a hip replacement,” she said.
They have spent the last two years supporting each other through therapies and surgeries
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF BREAST CANCER AND WHO CAN GET IT?
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia – one in seven women and one in 716 men are expected to be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime.
In Australia, the overall five-year survival rate for breast cancer in women is 91%. If the cancer is confined to the breast, 96% of patients will be alive five years after diagnosis; this figure excludes those who die from other diseases. If the cancer has spread to the regional lymph nodes, the five-year relative survival rate drops to 80%.
Most people with breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease.
Signs and symptoms include the following:
New lumps, thickening of the breast, changes in the shape or size of the breast and changes in the shape of the nipple.
Some women have no symptoms and it is only found during a mammogram.
Women and men can be diagnosed with breast cancer. Anyone can. For both men and women, if you notice any new or unusual changes in your breasts, contact your doctor immediately.
‘In September my left hip collapsed and I was booked in for a full replacement which I put off until December because it meant weeks without driving, which is difficult when you have children, even when you have a great support network like I have.
‘For eight weeks I couldn’t relax in a comfortable chair, drive a car or even get dressed.’
At this time the right side showed little sign or weakness, but by April it had also collapsed.
“I’m just getting back into training now and finally after two years of doctor appointments I’m starting to feel okay, even normal,” she said.
The hips can typically last up to 15 years.
“But I hope mine will last me well into old age,” said the mother of two.
Margaret is now on the mend but admits she is undergoing two more major operations so soon after the cancer was severe.
The sisters are looking forward to their first normal Christmas in two years – one where their children will in no way miss out on the excitement of the day
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
Different people have different symptoms of breast cancer. Some people have no signs or symptoms at all.
Some warning signs of breast cancer are:
New lump in the breast or armpit (armpit)
Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
Irritation or indentation of the breast skin
Redness or scaly skin in the nipple area or chest
Retraction of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
Any change in breast size or shape
Pain in any area of the chest
Remember that these symptoms can occur with other conditions that are not cancer.
Her children had to help her dress some mornings because she couldn’t bend down to put on pants in the weeks after each operation.
“They were seven and 11 and really had to step up around the house and understand that I would be exhausted and ready for bed by 6:30 or 7,” she said.
Both women were put into chemical menopause after the discovery of their cancers.
But after struggling to return to hospital every month for hormone-blocking injections, Aisling decided to have her ovaries removed.
“It went really well and it’s been so good for me because now I feel less of a patient, actually I feel really good,” she said.
She had already undergone a double mastectomy as part of her cancer treatment and is excited to get surgeries behind her.
“I also had my port-a-cath out – which is a relief because I had to go back to where I had chemo to get it cleaned every six weeks, which wasn’t nice,” she said .
The sisters say they are finally feeling good and mentally healing from the rollercoaster of the past two years
Now the mother-of-one is working to get her strength and fitness back on track.
“Most people don’t realize that you lose a lot of arm strength during a double mastectomy, especially when they take out a lot of lymph nodes,” she said.
“So I’m doing yoga for the first time in my life and I love it.”
The mothers are looking forward to their first Christmas without medical complications since they were first diagnosed.
They are also excited to reveal that their brand Lula Eye Mask has gone from strength to strength.
“Mags was able to quit his job of 14 years and we now both work in the industry full time,” said Aisling.
“We do all our work from home and move from one house to another,” she added.
This is helpful on days when they are not feeling their best.
Their business selling self-heating eye masks is booming – despite juggling running it with their health emergencies
‘We’ve both been through cancer and understand the side effects and can pick up if the other needs a break.’
The sisters said they have been inundated with messages from breast cancer survivors who want to support the company and the community they have built.
“People share their stories with us and they are so heartwarming, I try to respond to each one, but sometimes it takes a few days to find the right words,” said Aisling.
‘We are so proud to be able to remind women to take a few moments for self-care without feeling guilty about it.
‘Women do so much, self-care is so important, whether you’re sick or not.’