When Randi Stevens found a lump in her right breast, everything happened so quickly. It was October 2020, early in the second wave of COVID-19, and the next few weeks flew by in a flurry of appointments: a doctor, a mammogram, a biopsy. A plan for a double mastectomy, just to be sure they got all of the cancer out.
"Take ’em," Randi thought. "Take ’em both." Get rid of it, get it gone, let’s go.
Then the doctor called to say elective surgeries had been suspended due to the pandemic, and since Randi’s left breast showed no signs of cancer, part of the double mastectomy was considered elective, so they’d start with chemotherapy instead. At first, Randi was frustrated, but her doctor was reassuring.
If there’s any little bit of cancer anywhere in her body, the chemotherapy would kill it, he said.
So she started chemo: one week on and one week off, for the next several months. And chemotherapy is "no joke," she says: it takes you down, it knocks you out. She and her husband have three kids, now ages 2, 4 and 6, so she worried about that too, about all the moments she was missing with them while she was sick.
"Easier said than done, but I tried to keep in mind I was doing this to be there for them for ever and ever," she says, chatting in her parents’s Charleswood backyard on a peaceful October afternoon. "I was doing this to be there for a million other things. It was at times hard to remember, but that was the goal, to beat this and move on with life."
She and her family made the best of it. On Saturdays during her off-weeks from chemo, they created a new ritual to keep joy in their lives, playing games and ordering her favourite food. Her parents, Janet and TJ Belluk, helped with the kids, her husband Matt Stevens was a rock, and her two sisters and the small group of friends she told rallied around her.
By April, Randi was ready for surgery, followed by one last push of chemo to finish the job.
She saw a light at the end of the tunnel then. Her double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery was a "huge success," she says, and she was thrilled to learn the chemo had been too: it had eradicated nearly the entire tumour. Her last round of chemo was set to finish near the end of October, almost one year to the day since she’d been diagnosed.
How could this be happening? I don’t know why, I still can’t explain it… but it took a long time for me to share with my friends that info. It was a whole pile of disbelief, and thinking, ‘Why?’" – Janet
For almost a year, she hadn’t been able to get away from cancer. It was always on her mind, but then also out in the world: it seemed like she’d hear about it every time she read the news, or watched TV. So she was eager to imagine a future where she didn’t have to think about cancer every day, where she could move on with her family.
She didn’t know then that her family’s journey with breast cancer had, in a way, only just begun.
One day in the summer, Randi, 34, was hanging out in her parents’s backyard with her youngest sister, Hailey Belluk. It was then that Hailey, 30, dropped the news she’d been holding onto for a while, because she had no idea how to tell her older sister. Suddenly, in that moment, it started spilling out.
She had breast cancer too. It would turn out to be the exact same kind.
Hailey had gone for a mammogram in April, shortly after Randi had learned her cancer was genetic, caused by a mutation on the BRCA1 gene. At that time, the test found only cysts. But in mid-June she found a lump in her left breast; it was different than the normal ones she’d recently felt while breastfeeding her infant son, Harvey.
Concerned, she went to the family doctor used by her whole family. After another mammogram and a biopsy, she waited. "There’s no way two sisters could have it at the same time," some of her family and friends said, but when she and her mother, Janet, went to get the results, their family doctor came back in the room crying.
"I hate giving you this news over again," said the doctor, who had also treated Randi.
To both Hailey and her mother, and later all the friends and medical professionals around them, the diagnosis came as a shock. The situation is rare: two sisters, both young for a breast cancer diagnosis — the median age is 62 years old — and, now, both going through treatment at the same time.
"It was disbelief," Janet says. "The words that came to mind were not peachy. How could this be happening? I don’t know why, I still can’t explain it… but it took a long time for me to share with my friends that info. It was a whole pile of disbelief, and thinking, ‘Why?’"
With that, another sister’s life was thrown into the grind of cancer treatment. Hailey had just only recently returned to her job at CAA from maternity leave, and had been enjoying getting back into it; now, she had to tell them she would go on leave again, for a far less joyful reason.
The saying in our family is ‘it takes a village,’ and it’s true. So I had my moment, but the rest of the day it wasn’t on my mind. It was just a day of perfection that my mom and my sister made for me." – Hailey
There was something else she feared she’d have to set aside, in order to beat cancer. Hailey and her partner, Dan Hunt, had been planning a wedding for the end of September; with chemo set to start just two weeks after her diagnosis, she knew it would have to be postponed. When she told her mom and sister, another idea emerged.
"Let’s plan it for next week," Randi and Janet replied. At first, Hailey thought they were joking. They weren’t.
Together, Randi and Janet threw themselves into organizing a wedding in just seven days. Friends pitched in to help make food and decorations, including some who didn’t even know Hailey. They found a dress, and made notes of all the little things Hailey hoped to have, from charcuterie boards to the next day’s breakfast.
One week later, the couple and 35 of their closest family and friends gathered under a white tent in Janet and TJ’s backyard. It had stormed the night before, but the day of the celebration was perfect: "a dream come true," Hailey says, filled with love and laughter and a multitude of little touches that made it all the more special.
For the most part, she didn’t really think about cancer that day. But there was a moment during her first dance with her husband, where she nestled her head into his shoulder and suddenly she remembered why they were there at that time, and what lay ahead. She still blinks back tears as she recalls what went through her head.
"It just kind of hit me why we’re doing it," she says. "But also, I’m getting this day because there are so many people that love me and my family. The saying in our family is ‘it takes a village,’ and it’s true. So I had my moment, but the rest of the day it wasn’t on my mind. It was just a day of perfection that my mom and my sister made for me."
They all needed that day, Randi, Janet and Hailey agree, especially as they’ve faced what’s come next.
The sisters’ cancer is the same, and so are the treatments, but their journeys have been slightly different. Randi had to go to all of her appointments alone during the tightest pandemic restrictions, and was held mostly to Zoom calls with her friends; Hailey has been able to have her mom or husband with her at some appointments.
And Hailey has someone to call, who has been through it. That isn’t always easy for Randi: "I’m barely processing what I’ve been through, and reliving it so soon after, with (Hailey)," she says. "Being there for her is awesome and I obviously wouldn’t change it. But it’s also very hard to process that."
For Hailey, having that voice of experience so close by has been a light through the grind of treatment.
"You and Randi were competitive as kids, but this is a whole new level." – Hailey’s friends
"It’s not something you ever want to bond with your sister over," she says. "But it’s been amazing that I can call her in the middle of the night and be like, ‘I’m having this symptom, what does this mean, is this going to go away, am I going to have to go to the hospital? It’s for sure brought us closer, 100 per cent, instantly."
They’ve even found humour through the process. "You and Randi were competitive as kids, but this is a whole new level," Hailey’s friends sometimes teased her. That made the sisters laugh. So too, sometimes, did tongue-in-cheek comparing the size of their tumours: "She beat me on that one," Hailey says.
Through it all, both sisters say, the staff at CancerCare Manitoba has been incredible. To support that work, earlier this month they launched a fundraiser through the CancerCare Foundation’s website. At first, Randi wasn’t sure if anyone would donate, so they set their goal at $1,000. Within days, they had surged past $21,000.
"I think the first 48 hours it was posted I couldn’t stop blubbering," Janet says. "Their desire to help others when they’re going through the worst time ever, far exceeds anything I could have wrapped my mind around as their parent. The support and outpouring of generosity has been phenomenal."
Deciding to tell their story wasn’t easy, the sisters say. Randi has been largely private about her life with cancer; that’s just how she deals with things, she says. But she hopes to inspire more people to support cancer research and the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation, and she also knows their story could change others’ lives.
"You read these stories, and you’re like, ‘Oh man, that sucks for them’," Randi says. "Now we’re the people it sucks for, and I don’t want to be that person that people feel bad for. But someone might be reading this who, like me, I’d scoured the internet, and came across all these blogs that people had the courage to share. And it helped me."
So, this is what the sisters want the people who read their story to know: there is hope, and it can begin with early testing. While Randi’s sisters are still waiting for the results of their genetic tests to determine if they too have the mutation on the BRCA1 gene that causes cancer, Hailey knows, by her diagnosis, she likely has it.
For those who do have the mutation, a preventative double mastectomy can save lives. So too can regular breast self-checks and keeping on top of the appropriate diagnostic procedures: Manitoba currently recommends women aged 50 to 74 seek a mammogram once every two years.
"Don’t blow something off," Hailey says. "I could have easily blown off what I felt, and pushed it off to, ‘Oh, it’s just something from breastfeeding.’ If you feel something, ask about it. And don’t wait."
Those who wish to donate to CancerCare Manitoba in the honour of the sisters’ journey can visit the foundation’s website here at cancercarefdn.mb.ca.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.