Breast cancer is known to have genetic links, but in the case of a Western New York mother and daughter, there was no predisposition to breast cancer, and yet they both were diagnosed with the disease this year.
Donna Gerhardt visited a doctor for swelling in her knee.
The doctor asked a routine question: When was the last time she had a mammogram? It prompted her to get checked out.
“They compared my mammogram, my new one, to the old one six years ago, and it kind of snowballed from there,” Gerhardt said.
The diagnosis was hard enough. Not only was Donna herself facing a scary disease, but also her daughter, Jessica Elmore, had been diagnosed with breast cancer months prior.
Jessica, Donna said, keeps the entire family’s spirits up, even from where Jessica lives with her family in Virginia.
“She’s always been anybody’s cheerleader. Always, I mean, she’s uplifting everybody,” Gerhardt said. “She’ll so anything for anybody.”
Elmore spoke with News 4 by phone from Virginia. She said a positive attitude helps both herself and her family.
“God’s going to take care of this…he’s got this taken care of. I’ve never been one to think ‘There’s no way that this disease is going to take me,’ and that was my mom. I was like, ‘Mom, you’ve got to be positive, you can’t ever think that this is going to take you,'” Elmore said.
Jessica felt pain in her left breast around Christmas and went to get a lump checked out.
“Having daughters, that was never an option that I wasn’t going to get this checked out,” Elmore said.
She was diagnosed in February and had chemo and a double mastectomy.
“She’s kind of paved the road for me, so she’s giving me a heads up on a lot of things,” Gerhardt said. “She’ll tell me what it’s like, what to expect.”
From another perspective altogether, Bill Gerhardt has to watch both his wife and his daughter battle the disease.
“It was like a punch in the kidneys for my daughter finding out that she had breast cancer because it was unexpected,” Bill said. “And then Donna being diagnosed and having it, that was even more significant, and you learn to appreciate a lot more of life, and especially what she’s going through. It’s a real struggle.”
Donna and her husband Bill Gerhardt live here in Attica. Their seven kids and their families are spread out around the country, but the support for one another has overcome the distance. Donna says all her kids keep in touch regularly, and recently, when her colleagues held a fundraiser for her, her family sent in pictures from around the country of all of them wearing pink shirts, some embroidered with the words “Hope for Donna.”
The breast cancer battle has taught their family the importance of communication.
“Just being open and not hide anything when you know there is an issue, because you need everybody and everybody needs to be on the same page,” Donna said. “Like the night we called all seven kids and had to tell them what was going on after their sister, that was really tough, but they all rallied together.”
And it’s taught Bill the importance of stepping up as a husband.
“Anybody that has to go through this…go stand in a corner if you have to pout or cry or whatever, but then come back and encourage, be there,” Bill said. “I have to be the husband that cares and does everything that I can for her. So the housework gets a little more done by me, and I make a lot of meals now.”
“I think our roles have changed a little bit,” Donna said as both she and Bill laughed.
It’s also taught both mom and daughter the importance of routine checkups, mammograms and trusting your gut.
Jessica says if one test says nothing was wrong, but you still feel like something isn’t right, get a second opinion.
Especially important Jessica and her daughters, and all of the Gerhardt’s granddaughters: Neither Donna nor Jessica tested positive for a genetic breast cancer indicator.
“[Doctors] think that there is a gene out there that they’re still finding. Hands down, that they just can’t…they haven’t pinpointed it yet,” Elmore said.
Look for the “Hope for Donna” Facebook page to keep up with local fundraisers for the Gerhardt family.