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The Decker sisters: breaking the 'family curse' of breast cancer

Four sisters pose for a portrait.
The Decker family
The Decker sisters were born two years apart. Pictured here from left to right are Cheryl, Dede, Julie, and Charlene in the late 1960's.
A woman who has lost her hair from chemotherapy, smiles for the camera.
The Decker family
The Decker sisters' mom, Helen Decker, pictured here between chemotherapy rounds to fight breast cancer. Helen carried the BRCA gene mutation for breast cancer. She died from the disease.

In the 1960's in Eugene, there were four girls known as the Decker sisters: Cheryl, Charlene, Dede and Julie.

They never knew their maternal grandmother or their great aunt—both had already died of cancer. Their mom, Helen, was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late forties and despite a fierce fight, she too succumbed to the disease.

A mom after chemotherapy with her young sons.
Julie Decker
Julie Decker was nursing her 6-month old baby when her nurse practitioner found a lump in her breast. She lost her hair during chemotherapy. Julie is pictured here with her two sons on a "good day."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10% of breast cancers are hereditary. For the Deckers, the odds began to play out with the youngest sister, Julie.


“When it struck me, I was a new mom," she said. "I was breastfeeding my second son—he was only six months old. And my nurse practitioner found it. She found a lump in my breast.”

Julie underwent brutal rounds of chemotherapy. She got so sick, her oncologist stopped the treatment.

Just two years later, the cancer reemerged, this time under Julie’s arm in her lymph nodes. That meant more chemo, radiation and surgeries, including a modified radical mastectomy with reconstruction.

“Everything was cut off and pretty scraped clean. Then I had two implants tucked under there,” Julie said. "Then yeah, the nipple was gone so there was a tattoo, just tattooed circles basically.”

Julie said she misses her breasts every day.

“You know, just hugging people," she said. "There’s that sensation of feeling the other person’s body against your breasts. That’s a lovely feeling and I miss that.”

Julie Decker became a massage therapist in Portland, specializing in lymphatic massage. She helps many clients who are breast cancer survivors- like her.

While still in treatment, Julie met an oncologist working on genetic testing—an emerging science back in 2001.

“Finding out what kinds of different cancers there were—I had triple negative and I had the BRCA gene,” she said.

Breast Cancer genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are tumor suppressors crucial in fighting cancer. All human beings have them, in every cell in their body.

A woman and man smile while standing on a beach. The woman has lost her hair while taking chemotherapy.
Charlene Decker
On her 60th birthday, Charlene Decker was in chemotherapy. The chemical cocktail dubbed “devil’s blood” made her super sick and her hair fell out in tufts. Char and her husband, Don, stand on a beach on the Oregon coast.

Sometimes a mutation occurs in the gene which impacts a person’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Learning that BRCA mutations are passed down from parents, Julie worried for her sisters.

“It did feel almost like a curse on our family,” she said.

According to a report in John Hopkins Medicine, a person with a BRCA mutation has a likelihood of up to 85% for developing breast cancer in their lifetime.


The next sister to test was Charlene.

Second in the Decker sibling order, Charlene, or "Char," is a retired Eugene 4J band teacher and played in the symphony orchestra. She said she’s always been a risk taker.

Cancer survivor rings a bell after final chemo treatment.
Charlene Decker
Charlene Decker dressed up to ring the bell at Willamette Valley Cancer Center signifying her final chemo treatment.

When she learned that she also carries the BRCA gene mutation, Char elected to have what’s called a “prophylactic” mastectomy.

“I’d already breast fed my kids and I had a loving husband, Don, that I knew would support me in any decision. So, to do the breast thing was pretty easy for me to decide,” she said. “Of course, it didn’t work in the end, so that sucked.”

When Char says, “it didn’t work,” she means even after having her breasts removed as a preventative measure—she still got breast cancer. It was around Christmas in 2022.

“I had a lump and I really thought it was part of my implant," she said. "Implants are a pain in the ass.”

When her biopsy report showed advanced cancer, Char had a reckoning.

“I thought, ‘I might die,’” she recalled. “And I was okay with it. I had had an amazing life.”

Woman plays a trombone.
Dede Decker
Dede Decker is principal trombonist with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain. Here she plays for family and friends at her nephew's wedding on the McKenzie River in Oregon.
Smiling woman with her dog.
Tiffany Eckert
Cheryl is the only one of four Decker sisters who did not inherit the cancer gene BRCA mutation. She lives in Anacortes, WA with her fur baby, Stella.

But then, as many people facing death do, she rallied.

On her 60th birthday, Charlene Decker was in chemotherapy. The chemical cocktail dubbed “devil’s blood” made her super sick and her hair fell out in tufts.

Six months later, wearing sequins and a rainbow wig, Char rang the bell at Willamette Valley Cancer Center signifying her final chemo treatment.

Because of so much scarring, Char won’t have any more breast reconstruction and she said she doesn’t want it. She’s a proud member of a Facebook group of breast cancer survivors called “Fierce, Flat and Forward.”

While Char said she continues to suffer from “chemo fog,” she’s hopeful the side-effects of memory loss and confusion will soon end.


The third-born Decker sister, Dede, lives in the Canary Islands, Spain where she is principal trombonist with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife.

Dede understood her odds. But for a long time, she chose not to find out if she was at risk.

"My boobs were always kind of a big part of my sexuality and I didn’t want to know," she said. "Ignorance is bliss.”

Finally though, in 2022, Dede did take the blood test and it was positive for BRCA mutation. Then things got real.

“I didn’t want to die,” she said. “Before it was like, ‘Oh we all have to die of something, if it’s meant to be I’ll die.’ But it’s more like, I actually would have nightmares—wake up in the middle of the night, thinking like, ‘I could die.’”

So at age 58, Dede had an oophorectomy—a surgery in which one or both ovaries are removed—to prevent ovarian cancer, as well as a preventative mastectomy with reconstruction. She said in Spain, universal healthcare, or “socialized medicine,” covered all her medical costs, and she received six months paid time off from the symphony.

Now, Dede Decker is back in first chair, wielding her six-pound trombone and making beautiful music again.


The oldest Decker sister, Cheryl, lives in Anacortes, Washington. The retired National Parks Service botanist is the only one of four siblings who did not inherit the BRCA gene mutation.

“It is the luck of the draw. Each child has a 50/50 chance with the gene that our mother passed on. So, it really had nothing to do with me, but it doesn’t help with feeling bad about it sometimes,” Cheryl said.

As each of her sisters dealt with the hell of fighting hereditary breast cancer, Cheryl recounted how the brunt hit her too.

“Oh, it felt like a wall of bricks," she said.

Then, Cheryl takes a wider view.

“We’ve all lived pretty fabulous lives in different ways. But we’ve done very well,” she said. “And we didn’t wait to do it.”

The Decker dad

In the dining room of his assisted living facility in Eugene, 90-year-old Bob Decker sips a glass of wine as his daughter Charlene plays a grand piano for the residents.

“My wife died young, sadly," he said. "But she was a great mama."

The Decker family patriarch struggles with memory loss but he knows this: “All my kids are strong in different ways but they’re all strong. Fortunately.”

Cancer has put the Decker sisters through the gamut of feelings: Grief. Fear. Pain. Denial. But as a new year dawns, the strongest emotion they share is gratitude. By not just surviving but thriving, these women seem to have broken the family curse. And each one is truly thankful to be alive.

An elder dad watches as his adult daughter plays a grand piano.
Tiffany Eckert
In the dining room of his assisted living facility in Eugene, 90-year-old Bob Decker watches as his daughter Charlene plays a grand piano.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked in a variety of media including television, technical writing, photography and daily print news before moving to the Pacific Northwest.