These sisters grew up without a mother. Now they've made an extraordinary sacrifice in the hope their children won't suffer as they did
The bond between sisters Luan Moreton, Kim Jones and Jemma Dennis could not be any stronger.
Losing their 32-year-old mother, Rita, to breast cancer in 1986, when they were 12, seven and four, they share an exceptional closeness.
What they didn’t know until five years ago, however, is that they share something else too; something which threatens each of their lives.
Close bond: Sisters Kim Jones, Jemma Dennis and Luan Moreton bravely chose to have preventative double mastectomies to rid themselves of the threat of breast cancer. Their mother Rita died of the disease
Growing up in the shadow of their mother’s death, they always feared her cancer might be hereditary.
In 2007, their worst fears were confirmed. Genetic tests revealed all three of them had inherited the faulty gene, known as BRCA1.
Told that they had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer, and a 40 to 50 per cent chance of ovarian cancer, the sisters jointly came to a remarkable decision.
All three bravely chose to have preventative double mastectomies to rid themselves of the threat of breast cancer.
Furthermore, Luan and Kim have also undergone partial hysterectomies to remove their ovaries. Jemma, plans to follow suit, but at 30 feels too young to face an early menopause.
A daunting and drastic choice, but these three remarkable sisters insist they have no regrets. If anything, it has brought them even closer.
‘It was devastating to find out that all three of us had inherited the faulty gene, but at the same time we also felt very positive because it meant we had a choice,’ says 38-year-old Luan, a married full-time mother to a four-year-old son.
‘We could do something about it. Going through it together meant we all understood exactly what the others were feeling.’
Jemma, who is married to IT worker Mark, 37, adds: ‘We all wanted to live without the fear of getting cancer. After all, it wasn’t a case of “if” we got the disease but “when”.’
Kim, 34, who is engaged to graphic designer Marc Sharman, 34, and lives in Leiecester with their children, Elle-Mae, eight, and Dylan, four, says: ‘It was a shock, but having lost our mother so young, I was determined to be around as long as possible for my own children.’
The death of their mother was so devastating for the Jones family, it was rarely mentioned when the sisters were growing up. Their father David, a credit controller who died in 2003 aged 59, never re-married.
The death of their mother was so devastating for the Jones family, it was rarely mentioned when the sisters were growing up
Only Luan — the eldest — can remember Rita and the upsetting final year of her life when the cancer, which chemotherapy had failed to halt, spread to her bones.
‘Mum’s death was hardly ever talked about, but it was always there in the back of our minds,’ says Luan, from Nuneaton in Warwickshire.
’I always worried about cancer, and was very vigilant about checking myself for breast lumps.’
It was during one such check, two weeks before Luan was due to marry Sean, a printer, in Cyprus in July 2005, that she found a lump in her right breast.
‘I was 31, the same age as my mother when she was diagnosed, and I was terrified,’ says Luan.
‘It just seemed too weird to be a coincidence.
‘I kept saying to Sean, “Oh, it’s probably nothing”, but instinctively I think I already knew it was cancer.’
Luan went to her GP and was immediately referred to the breast cancer clinic for a mammogram and a biopsy to remove cells from the lump.
The results would not be ready until after her wedding.
‘I rang Sean from the GP’s surgery, crying, “I know it’s cancer. I’m going to die.” It all seemed so unfair to have this hanging over my head when I’d finally found my soulmate.
‘I tried to put on a brave face during our wedding, for the sake of family and guests, but all I could think was “Am I going to have only a few months of married life before I die’
Luan and her new husband were devastated when they returned to the clinic to learn the tumour was cancerous.
Luan then phoned her sister Jemma, who lives in Tamworth, Staffordshire, with the news. Jemma then called Kim. Both sisters were stunned.
Jemma recalls: ‘I just couldn’t take it in. I felt so sad and worried for Luan, because we are very close.
‘And then the alarm bells started ringing. Luan was the same age as Mum when she was diagnosed, and I kept thinking: “Will I be next or Kim” It was very frightening.’
Luan had a 2cm grade-three tumour — the most aggressive form of breast cancer — and was immediately booked in for a lumpectomy.
During the operation, 16 lymph nodes were removed and tested. She was relieved to be told they were clear and that the cancer hadn’t spread.
What Luan didn’t know then was that the faulty gene she carried could cause the cancer to return at any time. She underwent six months of chemotherapy, followed by four weeks of radiotherapy — after which she appeared to be clear of cancer.
But the alarm bells wouldn’t stop ringing in Jemma’s mind. Visiting her GP for advice, Jemma was immediately referred to a family history clinic and then a geneticist.
Their mother Rita died aged just 32. Only Luan (pictured aged 3) – the eldest – can remember her and the upsetting final year of her life when the cancer, which chemotherapy had failed to halt, spread to her bones
It was only because Luan had survived cancer that scientists were able to identify the gene mutation which had triggered the breast tumour and so look for the same markers in her sisters.
When a mutated BRCA1 gene is passed from parent to child, all the breasts cells carry this mutation.
Around 100,000 British women are believed to carry the dangerous versions of the BRCA1 and related BRCA2 genes, but it is highly unusual for three siblings to inherit it.
Blood tests were carried out in January 2007 on Luan and Jemma, with Kim joining her sisters for the results.
‘It was nerve-wracking, and all I can remember is the geneticist saying to us, “Unfortunately, it’s bad news”. To be honest, I’d prepared myself for the worst: to my mind it was better to know than bury my head in the sand.
‘But it was still a shock, as deep down I was hoping that there may have been a chance that I hadn’t got the gene.’
On hearing the results, Kim, who works as a financial services manager for the NHS, agreed to be tested too.
Both Luan and Jemma hoped that their sister might have escaped the same fate, but it was not to be.
‘When my test showed the same mutation, I think we all felt it was important to see it as a positive, rather than a negative, thing,’ says Kim.
‘Having that knowledge, I couldn’t just sit back, do nothing and wait for it to happen.’
Luan adds: ‘After all we’d been through when we lost our mother, it felt so unfair. I kept thinking, “Why did it have to be all of us” But you can’t dwell on the negatives.
‘Yes, we had this mutation, but we also had the power to do something about it before it was too late.’
Jemma, who works in IT and has no children, was the first to undergo a double mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery, in November 2007.
‘I was only 25, so it was a radical step, but once I’d made up my mind I didn’t want to hang about waiting,’ says Jemma, who married husband Mark in May 2009.
‘Mark was wonderful: he told me he’d support me whatever I decided to do. But it was very daunting because I didn’t know what the results would look like. I tried to make a joke of it, saying I hoped my new boobs would be smaller and perkier, but the worst thing was the uncertainty.
‘The hospital staff were wonderful, but not many people my age had ever been through a preventative mastectomy and reconstruction before, so I had no pictures to look at to give me some idea of the end result.
'They found a lady in her 40s who’d been through the procedure, and she came in to show me her boobs, which was very reassuring, because they looked great.’
Jemma was in terrible pain after the ten-hour operation, during which the muscles in her back were cut and re-positioned so the implants would have something to lie beneath. In a second operation, new nipples were created using skin from her back.
‘When I came round, I was in so much pain I thought “Oh God, what have I done” It was awful. But the body is an amazing thing, and once I started healing, I was really happy with the results,’ says Jemma.
‘We are always saying that my new boobs are much better than my old ones, but for me the most important thing was the relief of having that shadow of fear removed.’
Luan was next to have a double mastectomy, in 2008, and the next year Kim did the same.
Both would have undergone the operation sooner, but were already in the early stages of pregnancy when the genetic tests revealed the gene mutation.
Luan says: ‘When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was told chemotherapy would affect my fertility and it was very unlikely I’d ever have children. I asked about storing my eggs, but because the cancer was so aggressive, they said treatment had to start as quickly as possible.
‘Sean and I were looking into adoption when I found out I was pregnant with Nate. It felt like a gift from God.
‘But it was also a very anxious time. I was worried that the hormones produced during pregnancy would trigger the cancer again.’
Luan underwent surgery when Nate was six months old.
‘Jemma was very brave to have the surgery first, not knowing what it would be like,’ says Luan.
That made it much easier for me. Jemma would come round and show me her boobs, which looked great, so I felt very reassured.
‘I knew from visiting Jemma in hospital that it had been painful, but until I went through it myself, I had no idea just how bad it was. I’d thought nothing could be worse than childbirth, but I was wrong.’
Kim was the last of sisters to undergo surgery, but with two young children to care for, she opted for a shorter, less complex operation which offered quicker recovery time.
She has since had a further operation to refine the results. It was a daunting, upsetting and anxious time and I didn’t go into it lightly, but I felt fortunate that I had been given a choice,’ says Kim.
‘I didn’t want to monitor the situation and simply wait for something to happen.
‘I was the last to have the operation, so I knew from my sisters what to expect, which was a bit of a double-edged sword because sometimes it’s better not to know what’s in store.’
For all three sisters, however, the fear of ovarian cancer remained. Although the risk was considerably lower, at 40 to 50 per cent, they were again not prepared to sit back and simply monitor the situation.
Luan was the first to have a hysterectomy in 2009, despite the first consultant she saw being very reluctant for her to undergo such a radical operation as a preventative measure.
‘Given the chance, I would have liked a second child, but I felt the risk of ovarian cancer was too high for me to comfortably live with,’ says Luan.
‘The thing about ovarian cancer is that symptoms are hard to detect and screening isn’t 100 per cent effective.
‘One doctor did explain that I may never develop cancer, but I wasn’t prepared to wait to find out. I had no doubts in my mind about it, but after the operation my husband asked me ‘Are you sure you’re happy’ because tests showed that and ovaries were completely healthy.
‘But I am happy because my priority is to make sure I’m around for my son as long as possible, because I know what it’s like to grow up without a mother.
‘I know you can’t predict everything that might happen in life. Any one of us could get knocked over by a bus, but knowing I had this gene I felt, as a mother, I had to act on it.’
Kim underwent a hysterectomy in November 2011, and, like her sister, she says she has no regrets.
With two children, she felt her family was complete. Today, all three sisters — despite busy working and home lives — meet up regularly and talk on the phone, sharing symptoms and offering each other support.
Together, they are determined to raise awareness and help raise funds for Cancer Research.
Jemma, who plans to have a hysterectomy by the age of 40, has also taken part in a video to help other women facing the prospect of a preventative double mastectomy.
All three decided to speak out about their experiences to encourage more women with a similar family history to undergo genetic testing.
Jemma says: ‘Having lost our mum, we were all very keen to have the test. We didn’t want the fear of cancer hanging over us.
‘I didn’t want to spend my life, asking myself “When am I going to get it”’