Caroline Singer wasn’t daunted when the doctors told her she has stage three ovarian cancer. Her twin sister, Annabelle, would show her the way.
Annabelle has lived with the disease for nearly 25 years, after all. She’s a veteran of the cancer netherworld, a 74-year-old with closely cropped silver hair who knows how to navigate the matrix of checkups, surgeries, chemotherapy sessions and blood tests. She’s also stubbornly positive minded, refusing to let the cancer dampen her spirit and resolve to love life.
“She’s like a pioneer,” says Caroline, sitting beside Annabelle in the shade of a patio arbour on the 16th floor of Princess Margaret Hospital, the epicentre of the twins’ cancer treatment that they have cheerily dubbed “the pink bubble.”
“You’re the master of your own destination,” Caroline explains. “You could sulk yourself into —”
“The grave,” Annabelle says, finishing her sister’s thought. Caroline nods.
“I choose a pink bubble.”
The Singer sisters exhibit the preternatural closeness reserved for identical twins, and speak with the similar cadence of people who spend much time together. The only perceptible difference between them is their hair. Caroline has the long, thick hair they’ve sported their whole lives, while Annabelle has had to cut hers short for treatment. “She’s the ‘before’ and I’m the ‘after,’ ” she laughs.
The twins grew up in an anglophone Montreal family, an environment they credit for bestowing them with a cosmopolitan flair. That proclivity drew them into the fashion world, which welcomed them gladly.
They were globetrotters through the ’60s and ’70s, working on Hollywood film sets, rubbing shoulders with Bob Hope and Frankie Avalon, partying with the likes of Bill Cosby in Acapulco, sipping chardonnay on yachts in the French Riviera and being hired to promote Rolls-Royce at car shows in Italy.
Since then they’ve seen each other through a series of marriages, helped one another raise children — Annabelle has two sons; Caroline, a daughter. Now, with Caroline’s diagnosis in March, the twins have started their next trek: cancer, together.
At Princess Margaret they share an oncologist, and book their checkups and blood tests on the same days. During chemotherapy they sit together, side by side.
“We’ve been together through everything,” says Annabelle.
“It’s now us and cancer.”
It wasn’t always so. In 1990, on the twins’ 50th birthday, Annabelle was told she had breast cancer. She was selling Jaguars and Rolls-Royces at the time, and felt she couldn’t tell anybody about it for fear of losing her job.
“It was hush-hush, like ‘don’t get too near her,’ ” she recalls. “I was scared to death.”
Annabelle underwent radiation treatment and had a mastectomy before the mutating cells in her body were deemed to be in remission. She was officially cancer free until about eight years ago, when she started feeling a strange pain in her abdomen. She doubled over at work and was rushed to the hospital. It was cancer again, ovarian this time. And it had spread.
“They didn’t even know what to do with me, I had so much cancer,” Annabelle says.
She’s been on chemo ever since, abiding by a treatment regimen that sees her spend six months on the immune system-suppressing chemicals, and six months off.
The ordeal of the disease has brought more to the Singers’ lives, however, than the rhythms of treatment. A nagging preoccupation loomed over the twins since Annabelle’s first diagnosis on their 50th birthday: Would Caroline get cancer, too?
Given their similar genetic makeup, as twins born from the same egg, they figured the same cancer-causing agents that affected Annabelle would also affect Caroline.
“We were always wondering how come I never had cancer,” Caroline says.
“She never had a thing. Like, barely the flu,” Annabelle adds.
Last year, Caroline decided to get tested for the BRCA gene — essentially a hereditary trigger for ovarian and breast cancer. She had been feeling pain in her abdomen, and thought of Annabelle’s pain before she learned she had ovarian cancer.
Turns out, like Annabelle, Caroline has the BRCA gene. A few months later, in March, she learned she also has ovarian cancer. And just like her sister, it had already metastasized.
The twins sit together and smile warmly as they talk about that moment, and tell of their lives with cancer. It was a strange relief, Caroline says, to hear those “three little words: you have cancer.” The uncertainty was over. And she’d been watching Annabelle live and be happy on the other side of the cancer threshold for years.
“It was like, ‘finally,’ ” Caroline says, glancing at her sister. Annabelle reaches out to brush a strand of hair behind her twin’s ear.
“Give her a good party to go to and, man! She’s got her mascara out and she’s choosing outfits,” says Caroline. “I felt that I am in good hands, that I have no fear.”
The sisters do insist upon keeping the fun up in the face of their cancer and chemotherapy. They can’t dye their hair while on chemo, for example, so they use mascara brushes to darken certain strands and children’s markers to punch in some colourful highlights.
“I hate to use the word comfort,” Annabelle says, “but I have someone with me. We have chemo together. She’s like the other side of me.”
Five months since her diagnosis, Caroline has been told there’s a chance the chemo will work, that she’ll be in remission. It’s about the only thing she doesn’t share with her sister. Annabelle is in palliative care; technically, she’s terminal. If she were to stop chemo, she says she would die within a year.
In this proximity to death, the twins’ trajectories have the potential to dovetail. Or their common path could part in two.
“That kills me, that thought,” says Annabelle. It’s the only thing she’ll admit bothers her. But she shifts quickly to regain perspective of the bright side.
“I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to die, though,” she says. “When I decide I no longer have the want and the energy, and I’m fading and going down, all I have to do is say: ‘No, thank you. I don’t want chemo anymore.’ ”
Caroline agrees and says she’s happy for her sister, because she has a measure of control in her bout with cancer. As for her, death is nothing to fear.
“You just go on. And it’s an adventure,” she says. “You don’t look up and you don’t look down. Just keep on going forward.”
Annabelle’s eyes shine with her smile. “It’s OK. It’s all OK. We’re just not into the boo-hoo land.”
They choose instead their pink bubble.