The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Breast Cancer

October 10, 2013

Surviving sisters: Siblings diagnosed with cancer despite lack of heredity factor

JOHNSTOWN — Frannie Freeman of Lower Yoder Township and Connie Gavin of East Conemaugh are two sisters who make sure they get a mammogram every year.

Freeman, who turns 63 on Friday, is the baby of the family and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001.

Gavin, now 70, was diagnosed in 2007.

Both diagnoses came after the sisters had their yearly mammogram, and both were surprised because there was no cancer in their family.

“I get a mammogram every year,” Freeman said. “Our whole family is high density.”

“All of the girls are diligent about mammograms,” Gavin added.

Before being diagnosed in March 2001, Freeman spent nine months as caregiver for her husband, Cliff, who had been diagnosed with autoimmune disease, seeing him back and forth to Cleveland Clinic.

Her husband had just been declared well enough to be released for work, and Freeman was looking forward to getting her life back together when she went for a biopsy she was sure would show nothing.

“There was something, and I lost it,” Freeman said. “I took it hard. By 8 p.m. that night I said, ‘This is baloney. I will make it. I’ll do what I have to do.’ ”

Her cancer was a very aggressive, fast-growing type.

The size of a pea when first found, it had grown to more than twice that size in the month that Freeman went on vacation.

“All I did was worry,” she said. “I got an appointment, and Dr. Stefanik thought she could get a clean margin, but it kept coming back they needed to get more.

“After the third time, they got it all. It had gone into the lymph nodes, and I had to have 16 removed.”

Freeman also received eight chemotherapy treatments and 39 radiation treatments.

She was manager of the Bestform plant in Sidman at the time, and co-workers urged her to stay home during treatment, but she didn’t agree.

“In the year I had radiation and chemo, I missed 10 days,” Freeman said. “I looked horrible, but I was there. Attitude is so important. This was a rough stretch, and you get apprehensive when you have another checkup.”

After 12 years, Freeman has graduated to a once-a-year mammogram.

She considers both herself and her sister very fortunate and believes her husband got well just in time to help her.

“If I hadn’t gone when I did, I wouldn’t be here,” Freeman said. “I feel so fortunate to be here. For those women who have never gone for a mammogram, I say ‘You’re crazy.’ You just never know.”

Freeman now works for Erie Insurance Claims in Richland Township.

Gavin also saw Stefanik for her surgery.

“I had a lumpectomy and radiation,” Gavin said. “Then in September 2012, I had a lesion and had to have another surgery. Dr. Stefanik said I couldn’t let it go.”

In April, another lesion was found on Gavin’s right chest wall muscle.

“The new digital mammography at Johnstown Breast Center is phenomenal,” she said. “When they tell you something is there, it’s always an anxious time.”

Since her initial diagnosis, Gavin has gone for a mammogram every six months.

One of those checkups found her second lesion.

Gavin had retired from her position as customer service representative at Unishippers in Ebensburg several years before her diagnosis due to the death of her son.

“I loved my job and loved people, but I couldn’t cope,” she said. “Mentally, I couldn’t keep on top of things.”

Now that she is retired, Gavin keeps busy painting, sewing and fishing.

Freeman and Gavin have both received strength and support from their families as well as their church, Second Presbyterian in the Moxham section of Johnstown.

Both sisters have worked cleaning the church and doing anything needed for years and enjoy doing everything together.

Ruth Rice covers Features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Breast Cancer

What is the biggest key to reducing gun violence in Johnstown?

Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
Monitoring folks in treatment centers and halfway houses.
Tougher sentencing by the court system.
More police on the streets.

     View Results
Order Photos

Photo Slideshow

House Ads