Doctors diagnosed Nancy Merrill with breast cancer in 2003 when she was 41 years old. Nancy was frightened but hopeful, knowing that both her aunt, Patti Muller, and her mother, Mary Ellen, survived the disease.
But when Merrill's sister Diane Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, the family turned their thoughts to genetics to answer the question of "why us."
"The first thing I thought of was genetics," Stewart said. "And we all have to be very vigilant now."
Genetic testing showed the four women shared the same BRCA2 Gene. The BRCA2 Gene are human genes that belong to a class known as tumor suppressors. In normal cells, BRCA2 helps ensure the stability of the cell's genetic material and helps prevent uncontrolled growth. Mutations of the gene, are linked to development of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
While the family's genes exposed them to a high-risk of getting cancer, the shared genetics also served as a source of comfort. Both Merrill's mother and aunt are in remission, and the younger family members knew they can beat the disease, too.
"Again, I'd seen two success stories, so I wasn't devastated or concerned," Merrill said. "It was just tell me what I got to do."
Merrill said the family helps each other by sharing stories.
"It is a strange thing to share," she said. "But now that we've shared it we do have funny stories about different treatments."
Her sister agreed.
"If you are diagnosed, it's so helpful to talk to somebody who's gone through it," Stewart said.
Merrill has two daughters who doctors say have a 50/50 chance of getting the disease.