When Cancer Is a Family Affair: Meet the Hylants

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Being part of a family comes with a built-in lifelong lesson on how to share with others. If you are fortunate, early on you will learn how to negotiate such things as the division of bathroom, car and TV time, body wash, taking out the garbage duties, and walking the dog.

The Hylants have shared something no family should ever have to allocate—cancer. Jeannie Hylant has survived thyroid cancer. Her father died of colon cancer, her sister Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago, her mother battled breast cancer, and a young family member is currently facing issues. Jeannie’s sister, Polly, who was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 1988, died from the disease in 1990.

Family and friends at the Pollyball tournament

Jeannie Hylant believes there are keys to coping and emotionally surviving the cancer journey. One of the most important is to stay positive. “My sister Polly died in January of 1990 from the disease at age 35 leaving behind three babies,” Jeannie shares. “She was pregnant with her third child when she found the lump. Polly was scared to death; we all were. Yet the minute she was diagnosed she started fighting. She never gave up. She constantly researched. She always tried to stay positive. Watching her say goodbye to her kids was fiercely painful. My mom suffered the most. She lost my dad from colon cancer and Polly within eight months of each other. The family kept trying to lift her up and reminded her that when God closes a door, He opens a window. A window was opened in the form of a companion and my mother enjoyed his company the rest of her life.”

The Hylant family also feels it is important to talk about the experience to younger family members. “We talk to Polly’s kids about her all the time. We want them to know and remember their mom,” states Jeannie. “Sarah, the youngest, is so affected because she didn’t know her mom at all. Our family friend came upon some videos of Polly and we sat and watched them with the three girls [Rachel, Lauren and Sarah]. It was such a beautiful moment.”

One of the ways the Hylant family has healed is to give back. “Polly was a very casual person,” recalls Jeannie. “She was also extremely funny and loved playing volleyball on the weekends. The backyard matches got very heated. When she died, we felt we had to do something. We started ‘Pollyball’ in 1991 as a fundraiser to support underserved women who don’t have the means for medical services. We have partnered with ProMedica and the YMCA and have 800 – 1000 people playing volleyball every August in Polly’s memory. In addition to funds, we have raised awareness on the importance of getting checked. In August 2016 we will be celebrating our 25th year, and I think we’re coming up to the 2 million dollar mark in funds raised. Little kids who participated in ‘Pollyball’ when they were five are now coming back to play at age 25. Giving back in itself has become a cathartic process.”

Jeannie Hylant at a recent Pollyball tournament

The family urges everyone to get checked regularly. “Early detection could have saved my sister’s life,” says Jeannie. “Even though at 35 Polly would not have had a mammogram, there are now so many new and targeted treatments that could have extended her life. Right after I had my thyroid out in 1998, they found a lump in my left breast. I was 32. I subsequently had my first mammogram. They were so nervous due to my family’s history. If 3D mammography was available back then, I would have known it was a benign cyst instead of going through all the emotional numbness and fear. Today’s new technology can quickly determine what is cancer and what is not. Remember, early detection is so much better than the alternative.”

Jeannie and her family have found that the way to get through the multiple losses and diagnoses is to face fear head on. The next generations of Hylants are aware of the health risks they face, but the close family leaves things up to the individual on choices, such as genetic testing and surgical preventative measures. “Am I going to go out and get a double mastectomy because of my mom and sisters?” asks Jeannie. “No, that’s not me. I am however, part of the ‘Sister Study’ and have been for 20 years. Polly’s girls are not paralyzed by fear. You have to keep living. Look fear straight in the face and say, ‘You aren’t going to get to me’. Take control over it.”

The family also feels strongly in prevention. Family members try to reduce stress, are consistently tested, exercise regularly, and live a healthy lifestyle. “Life goes on,” says Jeannie. “You have to put both feet on the ground and get back to living and enjoying life. Treatment for breast cancer today is so much better than it was 25 years ago. There is so much hope. Will there ever be a cure? Who knows? I think the cure is prevention. Look at the number of survivors we have today. Even though it was downright crappy to go through all that grief and sadness, we have worked through our grief through remembrances and helping others. We don’t want anyone to lose anyone like we did. All kids need their mom. If the Hylant family has helped someone, even in a small way, we have met our goal.”

As Jeannie mentioned, prevention and early detection is essential. Click here to learn more about breast health and to find a screening near you.

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