The Kimball Family: Five Sisters, One Bad Gene

In 1994, the five Kimball sisters - Wendi, Cynthia, Kristy, Tammy and Jennifer --embarked on a frightening journey. It began with Cynthia, then a 30-year-old newlywed living in Japan, discovering a lump in her left breast. "When they told me I had cancer, I just lost it," Cynthia says. "I was in the best shape of my life. I thought this happens to older people, or other people."

Four years later, it was Kristy’s turn. Then Wendi’s.

"I was very angry," says Shelby, the girls’ mother "I couldn’t understand. Why was this happening to my family?"

The Kimball’s struggled to answer why - was it in the water? What they ate? Chemicals they’d been exposed to? Finally, on their doctor’s advice, they got genetic testing to find out if they had the so-called breast cancer gene - a defect that raises the chance of getting breast cancer - and at a young age - to as high as 85%. It also raises the risk of getting ovarian cancer to 40%. The results? They defied the odds - and not in a good way. Not only did Wendi, Cynthia and Kristy have the gene, so did younger sisters Tammy and Jennifer, both of whom have not gotten breast cancer yet. The kicker: They got it from their father - an often-overlooked source when it comes to inheriting the breast cancer gene.

Knowing "was almost a relief," says Kristy. "But I wish I’d known. I know I would have had prophylactic [preventative] surgery. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to go through this."

Admits Shelby: "I didn’t want them to do the genetic test at first. If I didn’t really know, it was like maybe it’s not true. But that’s like living in a fantasy world... I was relieved because at last we knew where it was coming from. It gave us a game plan."

Wendi, Cynthia and Kristy have all had double mastectomies, hysterectomies, their ovaries removed, chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgery. Tammy, who has not gotten breast cancer, has had a double mastectomy, which is 90% effective in preventing the disease. And Jennifer, the youngest, is monitoring herself very closely for any signs of cancer. They also are keeping an eye on the next generation, knowing they could have passed the breast cancer gene on to their sons and daughters.

In 2004, a decade after that first devastating diagnosis, the Kimball sisters and their parents started the Kimball Family Foundation to help families with a hereditary gene mutation - research is the answer.

"I think this has happened to us for a reason," says Wendi. "God wants us to use it to reach people. There are so many resources and people who can help and we feel research is the answer to finding a cure."