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Health & Fitness

Twins faced breast cancer with courage, support, 'tumor humor'

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Published:   |   Updated: October 7, 2013 at 11:28 AM

There was really only one way Linda Cone could break the news to her twin sister.

“Knock, knock,” Linda said into the phone.

“Who's there?” sister Lauri Hardeman replied.

“Cancer.”

“Cancer who?”

“I got it, too!”

It was the third and latest blow for the 56-year-old sisters from South Tampa. The first was Lauri's breast cancer diagnosis three years ago, followed by rectal cancer last year. Then Linda's breast cancer diagnosis came in February.

“If bad luck comes in threes, then we're done with all of this,” Linda says and laughs. “Let the big C pick on someone else now.”

***

Jane and Bill Reynolds desperately wanted a child.

They tried for eight years with no success, then began the adoption process. After two years, they got the call.

Identical twin girls, 3 months old.

“It was a surprise, but we didn't hesitate,” recalls Jane, 86. “Who gives up twins? They were like little angels dropped from heaven.”

Lauri and Linda say they had an idyllic childhood with the best parents anyone could ask for. At Plant High School, they served as models for the then-Maas Brothers Teen Board and were selected for the school's Hall of Fame.

Though they looked so much alike that they often fooled people, they had distinct personalities. Linda, the older twin, had an artistic flair. Lauri, the more outgoing one, was a dancer. They had a lot of friends, their mother says, “and boyfriends, too.”

Their father didn't like the idea of sending his little girls off to his alma mater, The University of Florida. Too much of a party school, he told them. So they both went to the all-girls Columbia College in South Carolina.

Love trumped education.

In her sophomore year, Lauri got engaged to a South Carolinian. Linda said yes to her boyfriend, a Berkley Preparatory grad, two months later. The twins married two months apart the next summer, and both recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversaries.

Linda makes her home in Tampa with her husband, Rammy, a road builder and consultant. All four of their grown children live nearby. Lauri and her husband, Gary, an insurance broker, raised their two daughters and son in South Carolina, then moved to Houston 10 years ago. It's now home to their kids and three grandchildren.

Both women say they've had a charmed life.

That is, until cancer struck three times.

***

One in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer every year.

For that reason, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women ages 50 to 74 get a mammogram every two years.

At age 51, Lauri went to her exam feeling healthy and robust. When the test revealed she had breast cancer, she says, “I was blown out of the water.”

Where did this come from? she wondered. The girls never learned the identity of their birth parents, so she didn't know if it was genetic.

The news could have been much worse. The cancer was inside the duct and had not spread to the lymph nodes. She had a lumpectomy and three months of radiation.

Linda came to Houston to hold her sister's hand and cry with her.

At the end of her cancer treatment, doctors gave Lauri a clean bill of health. Given the horror stories she had heard about the disease, she felt blessed that her experience was relatively easy.

“I was just so grateful to be done with it,” she says.

But she wasn't.

A year ago, Lauri suddenly became very dizzy. Her head felt like it would explode and she couldn't catch her breath. Her husband rushed her to the emergency room. Her blood count was so low, she had to have three transfusions.

After rounds of tests, doctors finally found the problem: a large tumor inside her rectal wall. Lauri would have to undergo three months of chemotherapy and radiation to shrink it before she could have surgery a few weeks before Christmas.

Linda again flew out to be by her sister's side. As much as she felt connected to this mirror image of her, she could not truthfully say: “I know how you feel.” Because she didn't.

“From the beginning, I resolved to be a survivor, not a victim,” Lauri says. “I do believe a strong, positive attitude makes a big difference. That's not saying I didn't go into my cave or cry in the shower where no one could hear me.”

There were debilitating moments, like when her temporary ileostomy bag, which never sealed to her skin as it was supposed to, would leak excrement down her leg. She got emotional, weak and depressed dealing with what she called “the icky cancer.”

Their husbands and children circled in, providing a safe ring of support and love. The twins also turned to their Christian faith and respective congregations for strength. Lauri had a special prayer to God: “OK, Lord, let me be the twin who got this. Please spare her.”

In February, with Lauri still recovering from her complicated surgery, Linda went for her mammogram. She told her doctor that her breast “felt a little funky.” Because of her sister's history, the doctor ordered a sonogram.

Three days later, she got the diagnosis: invasive lobular carcinoma. She went through one surgery, then a second one because the margins weren't clear. When her surgeon found another clump of cancer cells, Linda made a quick decision.

“Just do a double mastectomy,” she said. “I don't want to take any chances here.”

It was Lauri's turn to get on a plane and come to Tampa to hold Linda's hand. Now the twins truly understood what each one was facing.

Although their symptoms were different — Linda lost her hair, Lauri didn't — they got closer than ever, if that was possible. They would text pictures of each other getting treatment and upbeat messages to boost their spirits.

Laughing helps a lot, too. The twins call it “tumor humor” and admit cancer jokes can be dark and downright tasteless.

“Not everyone gets it at first. But eventually they get on board — or get far away from us,” Lauri says.

They share wicked stories about lobster hands, dry eyes, urine infections and nausea. Though people had good intentions, the sisters privately joke about getting “way too much pink stuff.”

“As if you need a constant reminder that you have cancer,” Linda says, rolling her eyes.

In July, Lauri finished her chemo. A month later, Linda completed hers. They decided a two-week vacation was in order at the Cone family's getaway beach house in Boca Grande.

The sisters were sitting on deck chairs enjoying a summer evening when a bolt of lightning lit up the dusky sky. Linda jumped up, grabbed her chair and moved it a safe distance from Lauri.

“I'm not sitting close to you!” she said, half joking. “Not with your luck.”

***

Linda isn't real good about the wig thing.

“I'm at Publix and I get a scratch, and it goes all crooked on me,” she says. “The bag boy is giving me a real strange look. I freaked him out.”

Still, she appreciates that the American Cancer Society provides two free wigs for patients undergoing treatment. When she visited the organization's wig closet on Kennedy Avenue, it struck her that most of the hairpieces were better suited for older women. She couldn't find long blond tresses like she had before the cancer.

So she went to the Krewe of Queen Anne's Revenge, the Gasparilla social-charity group she co-founded with six other women, and pitched an idea. How about we raise money for wigs at our Tropical Ball?

Besides the typical items they collected for the silent auction, such as sports memorabilia and dinner gift certificates, Linda painted nine wooden deck chairs with whimsical designs for the fundraiser.

On Sept. 20 they raised $5,000 for a summer camp for children who have survived a burn injury. Another $1,000 will go for 20 wigs Linda will personally buy and donate to the wig closet.

“This disease can rob you of your dignity and your beauty. I'm not willing to let cancer win like that,” she says. “Something simple like a hip wig can really make a difference in how you feel about yourself.”

Her surgeon told her that cancer will change how she looks at life. She was right, Linda says, but “I won't let it dictate my life.” Instead of dwelling on what it has taken away, she focuses on what it has given her: an even deeper appreciation of her family, restored and healed friendships, and empathy and compassion for those battling a serious illness.

Lauri seconds that.

“I take nothing, and I mean nothing, for granted anymore,” she says. “And I've learned just how tough I can be. I'm a much stronger person now.”

That resiliency is something the sisters credit to the couple who chose to be their parents 56 years ago. In the worst of times, they dug deep and hung on to the words they've heard from their father, Bill, 89, all these years:

Expect it. Accept it. And forget it.

“Daddies always know best, don't they?” Linda says with a smile.

 

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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