Gail Chovan answered the first call at dusk on a fall afternoon, confirming what she already suspected. Breast cancer. The second call came just two months later: Her mother, Ann, had gotten her own biopsy back. Breast cancer. And the third call came while Gail sat, eyes closed, as chemotherapy meds dripped into her veins. Her sister Lori was crying because she'd just gotten her own news. Breast cancer. "All three of us?" Gail recalls saying, her voice breaking. "I was overwhelmed. It was unbelievable."
But true. Within a five-month period starting in November 2008, three fiercely independent members of the Chovan family in Austin, Texas, found themselves fighting for their lives. All three discovered the lumps themselves and, alarmingly, in Gail's and Lori's cases, were diagnosed after mammograms came back normal (see box). "I've never seen anything like this," says their surgeon Dr. F. Ames Smith Jr. Says Gail, laughing: "I asked the doctor, 'Can we have a discount?'"
What started out as a battle for Gail's life alone became a full-fledged family affair, transforming the Chovans from a clan who gathered on holidays to a group who checked in with each other daily. "It's like being in a car wreck," says Evan, Gail's husband. "You hold onto the wheel and hope to get out alive." Heartbroken, her older sister Shakti LaGow, 55, agreed to help raise Gail's children should she die. "I was really yelling at God," she says. And Gail, 51, took charge of the family's treatment, believing in science and the relatively good chance that, if successfully treated, they could become cancer-free. She did research and gave Lori, 47, and Ann, 85, "Big Books of Cancer" binders to keep medical records organized. Lori drove Ann to her radiation treatments; Shakti spent Monday nights putting Gail's twins to bed. Ann provided comfort all around with frequent phone calls. "Cancer brought us closer," says Lori. "It was comforting to know what to expect."
In February, Gail finished a chemo treatment and, nauseated and shaky, took Ann to her first surgical appointment. A month later she went with Lori to her first appointment, reassuring her while Lori's husband, Joe, 40, "looked at my bald head like he could see what was coming," Gail says. Meanwhile Shakti was reeling from grief and guilt. "It didn't make any sense," she says, "that it happened to them and not me."
Growing up in Plainfield, N.J., the sisters were "adventuresome, positive thinkers," says Ann. They played and built forts together but grew up to be strikingly different women. Shakti, a collections associate who changed her name from Leslie after converting to Hinduism, was the wild one—"most likely to dye her hair purple," says Gail. Lori, a PTA mom, and Joe run a contracting business in the Austin suburbs, raising daughters Samantha, 13, Rachael, 12, and Megan, 5. Gail and Evan, 51, live in the artsy South Congress neighborhood, where she owns a boutique and he restores vintage signs—and both are veterans in dealing with medical crises. Their twins Zelda and Creed, now 4 years old, were born at 27 weeks with toxoplasmosis, an infection that left Zelda blind and both children with brain shunts. "They had brain, heart and eye surgeries," Gail says of her daughter and son, who now are doing well in preschool. "We did what we had to."
It's turned out to be a family motto. Twelve months after that first awful cancer diagnosis, all three women are "doing great," says Dr. Smith. Gail completed treatment; she has checkups every six months. Ann's surgery and radiation were successful. Lori's surgery went well and she's completed radiation. While hopeful, the Chovans still have concerns—both Lori and Gail tested positive for a genetic predisposition to cancer. Says Gail: "We have to look at options and see what's next."
For now, it's about enjoying one another. Lounging in chairs around the pool at Lori's house, they laugh at parenting stories and compare hair growth. "We have always been family," Ann says. But now everything has changed: "Now we can talk to each other like good, caring friends."