"I call her my brave warrior sister," Lydia Headrick says of Tanya Conlay

By Morgan Smith
May 07, 2021 07:00 PM
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When Lydia Headrick met Tanya Conlay for the first time, neither woman knew what to expect. The pair's children — Headrick's son Connor and Conlay's daughter Madison —  had recently started dating, and the two women decided to meet for lunch one sunny afternoon near their homes in Nacogdoches, Texas. 

Headrick had just finished her first chemotherapy session since being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a rare, aggressive form of the disease, in August. The ladies quickly bonded and shared their secret hope that one day, their children would marry and they would become family. Then, Headrick made a surprisingly emotional request. 

"I looked at Tanya and I said, 'If I don't make it, would you love on the [grand]babies for me?' " Headrick, 58, tells PEOPLE (the TV Show!) in Friday's episode.. Her doctors had told her that her odds of survival were "not great," and the prognosis weighed heavily on her mind. 

Two Mothers-in-Law Overcome Same Breast Cancer Years Apart, Celebrate First Grandchild Together
Lydia Headrick celebrates completing her radiation treatment
| Credit: Tanya Conlay and Lydia Headrick

"I said, 'We're not going to talk that way,' " Conlay, 58, recalls. 

From that day on, Conlay stayed by Headrick's side through her treatment: they texted and spoke on the phone constantly, and Conlay accompanied Headrick to her follow-up appointments. Their families celebrated joint Christmases, and Conlay even made Headrick a prayer shawl. 

"I was in shock," Headrick says. "You always think, 'I will never get cancer,' but it happened and I went through a lot of the stages of grief … I had a really rough time."

Two Mothers-in-Law Overcome Same Breast Cancer Years Apart, Celebrate First Grandchild Together
Lydia Headrick wears the prayer shawl Tara Conlay made for her at the hospital
| Credit: Tanya Conlay and Lydia Headrick

However, Headrick's cancer did not respond well to traditional chemotherapy and received personalized, experimental treatment through The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center's clinical ARTEMIS trial — immunotherapy, radiation, and, eventually, a double mastectomy. She was declared cancer-free in March 2017.

"I felt like I had gotten pretty close to death's door, and I was just so relieved to know that I had another chance of life, and I was going to hopefully see my grandchildren one day," Headrick says. Her son Connor was getting ready to propose to Madison soon, and Conlay started bringing wedding magazines for them to leaf through at Headrick's follow-up appointments. 

Connor and Madison got married on December 28, 2018 in Natchitoches, Louisiana. "Madison was everything we ever prayed for our son," Headrick says. "I tell my husband, 'I know she's not perfect, but I think she is,' she's just wonderful." 

Conlay adds: "We feel pretty much the same way about Connor." 

Two Mothers-in-Law Overcome Same Breast Cancer Years Apart, Celebrate First Grandchild Together
The Conlays (left) and the Headricks (right) at Madison and Connor's wedding in 2018
| Credit: Tanya Conlay and Lydia Headrick

Less than two years after Connor and Madison's wedding, the unthinkable happened: last February, Conlay was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, the same disease Headrick had battled only four years earlier. 

One morning, Conlay felt a suspicious lump on one of her breasts. An ultrasound and biopsy revealed breast cancer. 

"When I got the results, I immediately called Lydia," Conlay says. She enrolled in the same ARTEMIS trial that had saved Headrick's life. A few months into treatment, Conlay responded well to the immunotherapy and received a partial mastectomy to remove the cancer. She will undergo breast reconstruction surgery next month. 

Two Mothers-in-Law Overcome Same Breast Cancer Years Apart, Celebrate First Grandchild Together
Tanya Conlay during cancer treatment
| Credit: Tanya Conlay and Lydia Headrick
Two Mothers-in-Law Overcome Same Breast Cancer Years Apart, Celebrate First Grandchild Together
Tanya Conlay borrows the prayer shawl she made for Lydia Headrick years earlier during her own cancer battle
| Credit: Tanya Conlay and Lydia Headrick

Headrick supported Conlay through her treatment, answering questions, soothing her anxiety, and encouraging her to focus on an important goal: to rock their grandchild together one day. "I felt like I was at the end of a dark tunnel being a cheerleader for Tanya, saying, 'You can do this, I'm standing here as living proof! You can make it through this!' " she shares.

As Conlay's treatment happened at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of her in-person hospital visits were alone — the phone, and Headrick, she notes, became her lifelines. 

She notes: "Walking back from the doctor's office after hearing, 'Your cancer has started growing again,' especially when you're on your own ... it's a tough walk back to the hotel. But  being able to share that with Lydia and her encouraging me and saying, 'It's going to be okay, they're going to take care of it, you're going to be okay,' really helped.' " 

Two Mothers-in-Law Overcome Same Breast Cancer Years Apart, Celebrate First Grandchild Together
Lydia Headrick (left) calls Tanya Conlay (right) her "brave warrior sister." Here, the pair is flying to MD Anderson for one of Headrick’s appointments. Pilots provide free air transportation for patients.
| Credit: Tanya Conlay and Lydia Headrick

Headrick gave her a new nickname, too. "I call her my brave warrior sister," she says. "Not only were we mother-in-laws together and future grandmothers together, but we're warrior sisters." 

The name sticks, Conlay believes, because cancer is a continuous battle. "You have to fight against the fear, because if you have a headache, for example, you wonder, 'is that the cancer back?' " she says. 

This Mother's Day is especially meaningful to them as they are spending it with their first grandchild, Mercy Ophelia Headrick, who was born in February. 

Two Mothers-in-Law Overcome Same Breast Cancer Years Apart, Celebrate First Grandchild Together
Tanya Conlay (left) and Lydia Headrick (right) hold their granddaughter, Mercy Ophelia Headrick, together during a recent visit
| Credit: Tanya Conlay and Lydia Headrick

"We're not only celebrating our survival, but this previous new life that's come into the world," Headrick says. "I can't fully express how joyful I feel." 

Adds Conlay: "There aren't any words. I think when we share our stories, the scars, the wounds, the joys and challenges together, it makes you feel like you're not alone."

She continues: "Knowing that somebody else has walked this path, or is walking this path, gave me the encouragement to keep going. I hope by sharing our story that we can encourage other women who have just gotten diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer."

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  • With reporting by Katie Green