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The sister story behind the Dyson Breast Center

By Sarah Bradshaw-Colomello  |  9/28/2016

“I always felt they would find something and they did.”

Routine mammograms helped save 64-year-old Christine Mitchell’s life. Within two years, she would be diagnosed twice with breast cancer, then fight cancer with radiation, chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Nine years from her last reconstructive surgery, she is ready to put cancer behind her and her sister, Dr. Angela Keleher, is her biggest fan.

Mitchell is a periodontal surgical hygienist, who grew up on a pig farm in the Midwest and still calls Illinois her home. Her “baby sister”— as Mitchell refers to Dr. Keleher — came to Vassar Brothers Medical Center as a breast surgeon, adopting the Hudson Valley as her home.

For Keleher, Mitchell’s diagnosis would be an awakening about how women with breast cancer should receive care, how patients should have a designated center for diagnosis and treatment that is discrete and comfortable, with state-of-the-art technology and specialized, compassionate physicians. Years later, she would push to open the Dyson Breast Center at Vassar, which provides that type of personalized care.

As young adults, family history was the foreshadowing that cancer would be a part of the sisters’ future. Their grandmother, great uncle and two aunts had breast cancer. Diagnosis after diagnosis led Keleher to dedicate her career to combating the disease, while Mitchell started going for routine mammograms at age 34 as a precaution. Thirteen years of regular checkups later, Mitchell’s gynecologist ordered a mammogram and this time, there were calcifications in her breast. A needle biopsy confirmed atypical cells.

“I had a realization that I would always have to be conscious of this and really on top of it. It gives you a sick feeling,” said Mitchell, a wife and mother of three. Leaning on her baby sister, the breast surgeon, they set out on a course of wise decisions about her care plan.

After Mitchell had all of her calcifications removed, she continued getting annual mammograms. When she turned 53, her exam showed a lesion in her right breast. Further testing showed it was stage 0 ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is non-invasive cancer that starts in the milk ducts. A surgeon removed her tumor. During her subsequent radiation treatments, she focused on the day her breast cancer would be far behind her.

That day came six-and-a-half weeks after radiation began. Cancer free, she hoped to help other women of high risk due to their genetics. She signed up for a breast cancer study in Chicago, which entailed an experimental drug — she unknowingly received the placebo — and monthly breast exams. She didn’t make it 18 months from her last surgery before she was diagnosed again in the same breast with invasive breast cancer. This time, she was in Stage 1 with triple negative cancer, which means her cells wouldn’t respond well to hormonal therapy.

“I just wanted to be done with it,” she said about choosing to have her breasts removed. “I was just so tired of all of it. I just wanted my life back.”

Mitchell took no chances. On Sept. 27, 2007, she had a bi-lateral mastectomy, which is the removal of both breasts, and a sentinel lymph node biopsy, followed by full reconstructive surgery.

Dr. Keleher sat in the waiting room.

“This was the time I was the sister, not the doctor,” she said.

One month later, in November, Mitchell started IV chemotherapy.

“I always climbed out of bed even if I felt tired and went to do something,” Mitchell said. “I just didn’t want to not me be.”

Today, once again cancer-free, she goes to an oncologist for check-ups that involve regular blood work, with her sights set on 2017. That’s when she’ll be 10 years free from cancer, a milestone Mitchell feels will bring some comfort and reduce her constant worry.

“My sister went through it all: chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, and she is doing great. Nothing gets her down,” Keleher said. “My sister is amazing.”

Being pro-active, getting regular mammograms and choosing not to be fearful helped Mitchell through it all.

“Don’t be afraid,” Mitchell advised other newly diagnosed women. “I am fine. I’m healthy. I’m good. I have my life back. I am who I was, with or without breasts.”