Our community enjoys sharing their personal stories. Many of us have been moved and empowered by other people who face similar challenges, and sharing provides similar support for those who follow in our footsteps. Sometimes we gain solace knowing that our journey may help others, just as we benefited from those who shared their journey with us. For those who grieve our losses or negotiate similar choices, sharing can be a healthy way to help process our own feelings about what is happening to us. For so many of us, the legacy of cancer involves the women in our family: our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters. So it’s not surprising that the three most recent stories submitted by FORCE members before Mother’s Day were particularly meaningful. If you find these stories as inspiring and poignant as I did, please post your story or leave a comment.
Lessons from my Grandmother
As a young girl growing up in a tightly knit southern family, I jumped at any occasion for story time with my grandmother. Although I had never met my paternal great-grandmother, I heard stories from my grandmother of her hardworking personality and her quiet demeanor. My great-grandmother died in her early 50s, when my father was just a boy. When the doctor opened her up for abdominal surgery, she was so full of tumors that he simply sewed her back up without attempting removal. As I got older, I realized that cancer would be ever-present specter in my family.
I knew my grandmother, who was my best friend, as a woman with no breasts. She would unabashedly walk around without a shirt, while rehashing stories about the brief period where she attempted to wear “very expensive” fake breasts, until she ended up chasing one through the waves on the North Carolina coast! Growing up with this extraordinary woman and her daughter (my aunt) — a near replica of her — left me with a sense of humor that can only be explained by the presence of these two very strong women. I remember the day my aunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I will never forget the moment that I heard my grandmother tearfully tell her daughter, “I would take it away if I could.” Shortly after my aunt’s diagnosis, my grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer as well. Through chemo and remissions, there were times when they would end up in the hospital at the same time for treatments. When my grandmother’s cancer became resistant to drugs and progressed, I watched her slowly become a woman without energy who could not run to the grocery store to make us all dinner or play with her dogs outside. Through all her thirty years with cancer, my grandmother never once complained, or shouted angrily at God, things that I feel like doing every day.
I have watched my older cousin go through a double mastectomy with reconstruction and a hysterectomy before the age of 30. I have watched my younger cousin deal with testing positive for BRCA1 at a young age close to my own, when that knowledge affects future family-planning decisions. I have yet to be tested, but with my reproductive years at hand and a legacy of brave and wonderful women in my past and present, I have finally found the courage to be tested, and to face the challenges that lie ahead of me. – Brittany
A Teenage Daughter’s Perspective
At the age of 19, my mother gave me and my brother the option to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation. She didn’t coerce us; she simply brought up the option one day and told us that she’d support us no matter what decision we made. My brother and I both tested positive for a BRCA2 mutation. I’m often asked by friends and acquaintances whether I regret being tested, especially at a young age. My answer is always a confident “no” for several reasons.
I was at high risk for cancer whether I knew about it or not. My aunt, who passed away from breast cancer when I was in 2nd grade, had no knowledge of genetic mutations. My mom, a breast cancer survivor, knew she was at a high risk for the disease and made sure to ask for a second opinion when she felt it was appropriate. That second opinion was the one that caught her cancer. While I was in high school, I watched my mom go through radiation, chemotherapy, a double mastectomy with subsequent reconstruction, an oophorectomy and a life-threatening staph infection. Today, I am overjoyed to say that she is still with us and stronger than ever. Things could have been much worse if she hadn’t had the power of knowledge.
It has been several years since I tested. Not every teenager with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer may feel comfortable making the decision that I made. Genetic counseling is critical for those who aren’t sure whether or not to test. Today, I’m not scared of my cancer risk. I’ve seen my mother conquer the disease. I am fortunate to have access to frequent medical screenings such as MRIs, ultrasounds and mammograms, and experts like the doctors and genetic counselor that helped me and my entire family understand our options and make informed decisions. – Sarah
My Mother’s Loving Legacy
My mother was tall and slender with masses of dark hair, dewy brown eyes, and cheekbones to die for; she could have stepped right out of a feature film. She must have been surprised, after growing up as an only child, to become the mother of ten children. Our friends always said we had the prettiest, youngest-looking mother around.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was only 45. Not for one minute—even when she became bedbound and could barely walk to the bathroom—did we think she’d die. I remember the ten of us huddled around Dad at the funeral; my six-foot-seven-inch mountain of a father collapsed into a pew as my little siblings crawled into his lap and clutched him in their grief.
Breast cancer was the enemy. It had taken our mother and her grandmother, and we prayed it wouldn’t poison another generation. My sisters and I endured the agonies of bad mammogram reports and biopsies through the years. The lumps were all benign, until my sister Terri had her first biopsy, “It won’t be anything,” I promised her. But it was. “I’ve got it!” she sobbed. “The nurse said it was cancer.” Forty-four years old and the tall beautiful mother of six children, in that moment, she was my yellow-haired, gap-toothed little sister. Scared to death, she elected to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. After her surgery, her relief was palpable. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was over, we thought. But two weeks later, my sister Deb’s annual mammogram indicated two suspicious spots. A subsequent biopsy revealed pre-cancer. Breast cancer was becoming the reality we had dreaded for so long.
Making an appointment with a noted specialist in Omaha, the three of us learned about our options. Even though Terri tested negative for a BRCA mutation, our doctor explained that some hereditary susceptibility was present in our family. We could either try to catch it early or head it off at the pass. We opted for prophylactic double mastectomies.
It has been a harrowing, emotional journey. We all experience moments of despair and grief at our losses. Much of that grief is for Mom. But it is because of her that we will survive. I see her in my sisters: in Deb’s laughter, in Mary’s expressive eyes, in Terri’s irreverent humor, in Caroline’s plucky resolve. We feel her loving spirit encouraging us, comforting us, applauding us. “Don’t be sad!” she tells us. The future that always seemed uncertain is folding out in front of us, and Mom would want us to enjoy it. And so we will: for our kids, for ourselves…and for Mom. – Cathy