What's behind one family's surging cancer rates?

BEAUREGARD PARISH, LA (KPLC) - This week, we launch a series of special Healthcasts highlighting local people that have overcome tremendous health problems against all odds.

Our first story takes us to Beauregard Parish, where four generations of women in one family have had cancer. These women are not the only ones fighting the disease - their female cousins and aunts are too - stumping cancer researchers.

Just like the Grigg's family quilt is woven together by a common thread, so are the lives of the women in this family, all affected by cancer. "My grandmother, my mother, me, Shea, first cousins, second cousins, aunts," said June Grigg.

June's list can go on and on, adding in the names of close relatives diagnosed with cancer: breast, esophageal, thyroid, colon, leukemia, sarcoma and melanoma.  "It's not like it's just one little thing," she said, "it's prevalent in our family for some reason."

Cancer did not personally affect June and her husband until their then 15-year-old daughter, Shea, was diagnosed with an aggressive sarcoma. "I was shocked," said June, "we were both shocked.  I think her dad just hit the floor."

Shea Grigg Budnik says, "I dreamed about my own funeral, because I was not as aware of the prevalence of cancer in the family at the time. After that I just got mad."

Two years of chemo took a big toll on this teen basketball star's health, but Shea got better and life for the Griggs was once again cancer-free. "It was on the peripheral edges of my life, because my life was so good. We were blessed," said June.

Then, in 1987, June found a lump in her breast. "All these other people who had breast cancer started tickling that little part of you that says 'maybe there's something to this,'" she said.

It was cancer and June opted for a double mastectomy. Then came thyroid cancer for June and Shea. "I guess I didn't think I would escape it," said Shea, "I thought it would happen sooner or later."

Both women bounced back - June as a teacher and Shea as a school social worker, wife and mom.

When Shea felt a lump in her breast this year, she knew her next move. "The only choice for me is bilateral mastectomies, there's no other option for me."

Researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston asked Shea if they could study her case more closely. "They really feel strongly that there is some kind of genetic component in the family," said Shea, "but maybe it's just one that they have not been able to isolate yet."

Finally Shea felt there was a glimmer of hope in finding out what was behind all of these cancers. She went through genetic testing, trying to find a family link, but those results would only bring up more questions. "It all came out negative and we were shocked, to say the least," she said.

Without a known genetic link, researchers enrolled Shea and June in a long term family study. Tissue and blood samples were taken, with plans for researchers to study their DNA through the years. "Hopefully, it will benefit my grandchildren and other people," said Shea, "that they will develop a test to look for this mutation and help identify people at risk for this type of cancer."

June says she firmly believes God's hand has been on her family through each cancer diagnosis and that it can all be used for the betterment of others. "We're here to look after our fellow man and take care of things," said June, "and to me, this is something that we can do that could help other women."

The Griggs have also tried to consider environmental factors for the cancer numbers, but many of the women diagnosed live as far as 100 miles apart.

Shea's 15-year-old daughter has already asked about having her breasts removed. Doctors have recommended her to start mammograms in her 30s.

One of the big lessons that Shea says she wants to share with other women is to advocate for yourself: know your body and any changes. She says there were times when she knew she had a lump, but it did not show up during a mammogram.  After she demanded a breast ultrasound, her suspicions were confirmed and the cancer was caught early.

Shea is also part of three other cancer studies at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center: two related to body image and one on a cancer blood test.

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