By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Winsted sisters, Amy Burau, 33, and Jessica Maas, 35, do everything together.
They live in the same town, they both work at Park Nicollet in St. Louis Park, and they car pool to work every day to save money on gas.
“Her kids are like my kids, and my kids are like her kids,” Maas said. “I am disciplining her little ones like they are mine.”
“We are close, but we are separate,” Maas said. “We have our own likes and dislikes.”
But neither of them could have ever predicted they would be dealing with breast cancer at the same time, or have to undergo bi-lateral mastectomies within two weeks of each other.
With positive outlooks for their recovery, and the opportunity to help others, Burau and Maas want to share their story to make women aware of how important mammograms and breast self-exams are in the early detection of breast cancer.
“We just think it is really important for women to be their own advocates and if they feel something is wrong, don’t be afraid to go to the doctor,” Maas said. “If insurance won’t cover it, find a program like Sage to get it done.”
The Sage program provides breast and cervical cancer screening free of charge to low and moderate income Minnesota women.
Both Burau and Maas disagree with recent recommendations put out by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) which suggests women wait until they are 50 to get a mammogram.
In addition, the USPSTF, as well as the American Cancer Society, recommend eliminating breast self-exams altogether because they do not reduce breast cancer mortality.
“By the time I was 40, if they are still following the new guidelines that they want to do, I wouldn’t be here or I would have been very, very sick by then and it would have been too late,” Maas said.
And Burau, who found her breast cancer through a self-exam, also disagrees with the new recommendations.
“It is so important for women to do breast self-exams because you are the one that might be able to feel something a little bit different than someone else,” Burau said.
The women began dealing with the consequences surrounding breast cancer Oct. 2 when Burau found a pea-size lump, in her breast while she was doing a self-exam.
The discovery was 10 months after her annual physical.
Through a breast ultrasound and mammogram, Burau learned she had not only one lump but three.
Following a biopsy, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
Two days after Burau was diagnosed, one of Maas’ co-workers urged her to go and have a mammogram done.
Although Maas had undergone some breast changes over the last few months, which she attributed to working out, she didn’t have any lumps that she could feel.
Maas did follow her coworkers’ advice and used the Sage Screen program.
After Maas’ first mammogram, they did an ultrasound, and then another mammogram because they had found calcifications, which are normal in the breast, but then, they also wanted to do a biopsy.
The sisters could not believe this was happening to them.
“I was thinking, ‘there is no way Jessica is going to be diagnosed with this,’” Burau said.
And Maas did not believe it either, after putting off the biopsy for a week, thinking it was nothing.
“I was like, ‘this would be a sick joke,’ right? Wouldn’t it, if both of us ended up with this?” Maas said.
Because the sisters work at Park Nicollet, they have access to their own records and Maas could not wait, following her biopsy, for the phone call that would reassure her that she was cancer-free.
The Monday following her biopsy, she opened up her file and read her pathology report.
When she saw DCIS in both areas they had biopsied, she called her sister right away, asking her if she thought this meant she had cancer.
“I just felt so bad for her,” Burau said. “I was already going through the steps, but my husband was with me every night at the hospital and Jessica is a single parent and she is alone.”
Eventually, Maas got the dreaded phone call telling her she was diagnosed with DCIS.
But there were advantages for Maas who was following in her sisters footsteps. She always knew what was ahead and she always had someone to talk to about the different procedures.
“It helped a lot,” Maas said. “She (Amy) prepared me and I kind of knew what to expect for every appointment I went to.”
“I worried about her and she worried about me, so we weren’t always dwelling on ourselves and what was happening,” Maas said.
The sisters have made it through their first surgery, but the reconstructive surgery is a much longer process, expected to take several months.
Burau is going through chemo because her cancer was invasive, but she was lucky it had not moved into her lymph nodes.
She began chemo Dec. 2. Her treatments will consist of eight chemo sessions over a 14-week period.
Knowing she will lose her hair, she purchased a couple of wigs, but feels ridiculous wearing them.
“I am just going to hat it. I have a few of my friends who have said they would be willing to go bald with me,” Burau said.
Wanting to support her sister, Maas, whose hair was down to her lower back, had it cut above her shoulders and donated over 10 inches of hair to Locks of Love.
“I can’t have her looking at me going, ‘look at all of your hair,’” Maas said.
Burau has a 78 percent chance of being cancer-free in 10 years.
Maas does not have to go through chemo, and has an 80 percent chance of being cancer-free within 10 years.
The sisters have no close family history of breast cancer and although they both smoked at the time they learned they had cancer, their oncologist made it very clear it was not a contributing factor in this type of cancer.
“He felt strongly that it was genetic,” Maas said.
Both women are grateful for the many people who have supported them through their surgeries.
“I can’t believe how many people care,” Maas said.
A long list of friends and family have been there to clean their homes, brought food, and their co-workers have even given up paid leave time for them.
“Our co-workers have been donating PTO hours because our disability only covers 60 percent of our wages. So far, I have been getting 100 percent of my salary,” Burau said.
Burau and Maas are HLWW graduates
Burau is married to Mark and they have three children: Brian 15; Bethany, 6; and Bruce is 3.
Brian attends Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (HLWW), and Bethany attends St. James Lutheran.
Maas has a son, Brandon, 17, and a daughter, Hannah, 13. Both of Jessica’s children attend HLWW.