Identical Twins Share with Near Identical Cancer Diagnoses

twins with cancer
George (left) and Greg Robinson are twins with a nearly identical cancer diagnosis.

Identical twins George and Greg Robinson have been inseparable for 57 years, from sharing a childhood bedroom and classes in school through dual Air Force stints and careers in the airline industry. Today, back in their native Cambridge, Mass., they live just a block apart and still talk several times daily.

But there is one thing these brothers and best friends share that they wish they didn’t: cancer.

The Robinsons are hematologic oncology patients of David Fisher, MD, at Dana-Farber. George was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in June 2015, and Greg with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (known as CLL) in April 2017. Because their cancers were caught early, neither twin has required chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery – just periodic check-ups with Fisher.

Twin Risk
Their situation is not without precedent. A study led in part by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January 2016, found that having a twin sibling diagnosed with cancer increased cancer risk for the second twin. More than 200,000 twins with 23 different types of cancer were included in the study, and were followed for an average of 32 years between 1943 and 2010.

Whether or not being twins played a role in their dual diagnoses, the brothers were not surprised. “After George got diverticulitis a few years ago, I wound up getting it too – only worse,” says Greg. “When he got cancer, I figured it was only a matter of time for me.”
Family history was likely also a factor. Their father, George Sr., avoided doctors. When his non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate cancer, and colon cancer were finally found, simultaneously, it was too late to help him.

The younger George was luckier, but still shaken when a bump on his back proved malignant. A father of four and grandfather of six, he worried about leaving his family too soon. Then, less than two years later, he returned from a business trip and found Greg waiting for him at the airport with a piece of paper. “Read this,” Greg said, “you’re not going to believe it.”

That’s how George found out his “little” brother – he’s one minute older – had cancer too.

“I was scared,” George recalls. “It didn’t seem fair, and there was nothing I could do.”

Greg, a single dad living with two college-student daughters, takes a glass-half-full approach. “We were both caught early, and we have each other to lean on,” he says. “Our friends always say about us, ‘If you see one, you see the other,’ so this is just one more way we’re connected.”

Understanding the Genetics

In addition to themselves, the brothers will soon have the opportunity to help others. Fisher is enrolling them in a family study within the Lymphoma Program, led by Jennifer Brown, MD, PhD, that is seeking to uncover more genetic clues that help explain – and predict – which siblings (including twins) are more susceptible to dual diagnoses.

“There may be genetic factors we don’t understand, and we hope to find them out,” says Fisher. “We’ve got a lot to learn about what could have led to their situation, but in the meantime these guys are both doing great.”

And as George and Greg continue living with cancer, they hope Fisher and other researchers find the answers needed to keep other twins from having to do so.