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October 2015 Survivors of the Month – Cynthia and Sylvia Whitfield
Sisters, Soul Mates, Survivors
Cynthia and Sylvia Whitfield’s Story by Robert McNamara
During difficult times when we find ourselves looking for strength, many of us take a deep breath, look ourselves in the mirror, and search for answers. As the reflection stares back, for a brief moment, we can see ourselves the way that the world sees us. Sometimes it is just the tiny lift that we need to keep moving forward. There are a few among us though who do not need a mirror to catch such a glimpse. Cynthia and Sylvia Whitfield are identical twins and over the years the two have shared much more than just birthdays. It was shared experiences, such as each fighting breast cancer twice, that have helped them to find the deepest strengths not only in themselves, but in each other as well.
Their lives before cancer were full of lots of activities, some of them similar to one another, while others very unique. Both enjoyed being active and traveling, and both shared a sense of patriotism that led them to choose the military for their profession before later moving into roles in logistics. “Before cancer, I considered myself healthy. I enjoyed working out, sitting out in the sunshine. I liked going to movies and shopping. I also enjoyed reading and dating. Cancer was not something that I was concerned about happening to me. I enjoyed all seasons,” said Cynthia, when describing what life was like before the disease. In the time before cancer entered Sylvia’s life, it was also a topic far from her daily thoughts. “Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was very active. I loved to run and exercise. I was very competitive. I loved to travel and visit my friends in different locations. I was enjoying life and taking care of my soldiers.”
Two years before her sister would learn of her diagnosis, Cynthia would become the first of the two to learn of the journey ahead. “When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I did not look at it as a death sentence. My thought process was ‘Okay, I have breast cancer, how do we get rid of it?’” Cynthia’s optimism would be tested very early into her fight as she came face to face with the first difficult parts of such a battle. “I was feeling bad because I was losing a part of my womanhood, I had to have a mastectomy. When the doctors told me that I could have reconstruction surgery, I felt a lot better. I knew then that I would be able to handle the rest that came with breast cancer. I had to have chemo and radiation. Losing my hair was devastating as well, but luckily wigs are in style.”
It is that ability to accept challenging news without allowing it to defeat her that helped Cynthia survive not just this initial fight with cancer, but also a second bout after that. These experiences have changed her and given her the chance to reflect on life in a different way. “Having breast cancer has given me a new perspective on life. I do not sweat the small things any more. It has brought me closer to God. I do not take life for granted. Family means everything.”
Two years after her sister’s journey began, Sylvia would find herself in the crosshairs of this terrible disease. No matter what similarities people share, everyone reacts to tragedy in different ways. When Sylvia learned of her diagnosis one of her first thoughts was how this news would impact her fellow soldiers. “(Before cancer)… I was enjoying life and taking care of my soldiers. My organization was scheduled to deploy. My bags were already loaded, we were due to fly out in 30 days, (and) I had to tell my soldiers I would not be deploying with them. My heart was breaking because I was thinking, ‘who will take care of them?’”
Sylvia knew well the courage that it takes to defeat breast cancer because she had recently seen her sister fight so passionately against this disease. “(Cynthia) had breast cancer two years before me. I was a caregiver for her. We supported each other. It was hard to see my sister go through this illness. We both stayed in good spirits and that helped a lot. The key to getting through this process is staying positive and knowing when one door closes another one will open.” While she was able to draw strength from the experience as Cynthia’s caregiver, Sylvia knew that the road ahead of her would be difficult for her to travel. “My journey with breast cancer was overwhelming, but with the support of my family and friends I made it through. I also had God on my side. When times got tough, I called on him.”
While both ladies are doing well after their fights, there are still lingering signs of the effects of this terrible disease. Sylvia faces more surgery to correct a complication with her reconstruction. Cynthia, who loves all seasons, must be careful not to get too much sun. Perhaps it is these reminders that have inspired both women to reach out to others in the community who are facing similar fights. Through Susan G. Komen, both Cynthia and Sylvia have made connections with a network of survivors and patients who share the dream of a world without breast cancer.
For Cynthia, the ability to connect to others offered through Komen has had a lasting impact. “Survivorship support has impacted my journey the most because it motivates me to keep pushing through and not to give up. It is also a time for me to communicate with other survivors and learn about their journey as well.” Sylvia, who knows better than anyone what it means to have a sibling close by, has embraced her new sisters in a sorority of survivorship. “I now have in my life my sisters in pink. We support each other, which is very uplifting. It is good to know I am not alone in this journey.”
It is a special thing to be a twin. It is a relationship like no other: part sister, part soul mate, and in some ways perhaps even an extension of oneself. Cynthia and Sylvia have shared a unique bond their entire lives, and while they have faced many similar challenges, they are anything but carbon copies. Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two is not in the way that they look or in the parallel paths that their lives have traveled, but rather in a strong sense of optimism that seems to radiate from them both like warm Georgia sunshine.