Stories

Recently, I began asking my dad more about my mother’s family.

Even though my mother has been gone since 1987, my dad is still an amazing source whenever I’m craving insight into her family.   He has been and still is the go to guy when I want to know anything about my grandparents or mother.  I’m pretty sure if my dad ever took piñata form, and you knocked him open, nothing but stories would come falling out.  I may look exactly like my mother, but my personality is straight up from my dad.

I have written before about my grandmothers.  This time around, I wanted to dig a little deeper about the one who I barely remember or who I think I barely remember.  (Does remembering a deep smoker’s voice telling me to give her “some sugar” count as a memory?)  Who is my mother’s mother?

When I googled my grandmother’s name, I found out my great grandparents name, which I never knew before.  But I don’t want to just create a family tree, look at all the filled-in names, say, “I’m done,” and then pat myself on the back for doing such a splendid job.  I want to get to know these names, not just where they place in my family tree.

During my great family google, I even uncovered a great aunt’s name, which I had never heard (or maybe I had, but it had been so long that I had forgotten).  According to my dad, my great grandfather and his family arrived in Texas in a cover wagon.  My mom’s cousin told me that my great aunt was a loving woman who greeted beloved family members by kissing them and exclaiming, “I love you!”  Another cousin of my mom’s said that my mother made the best lasagna.

See, I did not know that.

My grandmother died when I was 3 years old of lung cancer, and my mother died when I was 7.  I’m not that close to my mother’s siblings since I have never lived in the same state as any of them.  I have these family members out there who I don’t know, and who don’t know me.  Sadly, I have these family members I will never know.

Every time I look at this photograph of me sitting next to my grandmother, where my face is so done up with so much makeup that I looked like a toddler beauty queen, it makes me laugh.  Man, she must have had a good time painting my little toddler face.   I wonder if she would have found my anti-girly girl personality during my teen-aged years to be unbecoming and would have had talks with me about how I could pretty up my appearance.

While pictures are great, stories are something else.  When I hear these stories, no matter how insignificant they might be to the story teller, my grandmother and mother come alive.  They become real people.  Any stories about these women slowly fill in giant holes in my heart that cancer created.  I don’t care if the stories paint either woman in a less than flattering light.  They were real life humans once, before cancer came along, and they had flaws just like everyone else.

I am third generation cancer.  I am sad that I never got to hear stories from my grandmother about what my mom was like as a child.  I have certainly never dreamed of shopping for wedding gowns since my mother and grandmother are no longer here.  Cancer took them from me, but lately, when I learn more about them, they are more than the disease that took their lives.  They are my family, and I know that I come from a line of women who will always be more powerful than cancer.

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With all this awareness, why are we still ignorant about cancer?

Early last week, I came across an article published on Scientific American which made me roll my eyes and say, “Of course.”  When Ms. Jolie announced her decision in the New York Times on May 14, 2013 that she had a double mastectomy because of her BRCA1-mutation, I naively thought, “Wow, she is like The Celebrity.  Maybe the general public will actually learn something about breast cancer for once.”  

I do not blame Ms. Jolie for the general public’s ignorance about breast cancer and its risks.  She did write in her op-ed:

Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.

Nothing about what she wrote could be open for interpretation.  She explicitly wrote in her op-head that only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation.  The Scientific American article unfortunately reveals that the general public believes otherwise.  

Researchers surveyed more than 2,500 men and women and found that a whopping three out of four knew Jolie’s story. But less than 10 percent could correctly answer questions about the BRCA gene mutation that Jolie carries. 

The myth that those who have this mutation or a strong family history (the category I fall under) make up the majority of who are diagnosed with breast cancer is prevalent.  According to the American Cancer Society’s 2013 to 2014 Breast Cancer Facts & Figures, which may be found here, an estimated 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers result from inherited mutations, including the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation.  

What does that mean exactly?  Well according to the ACS, this

Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have this disease.

Having one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk. Having two first-degree relatives increases her risk about three-fold.

The exact risk is not known, but women with a family history of breast cancer in a father or brother also have an increased risk of breast cancer. Altogether, less than 15 percent of women with breast cancer have a family member with this disease. This means that most (over 85 percent) women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of this disease.

I do not carry either BRCA mutation, but yet I still had breast cancer.  My mom was diagnosed with late stage breast cancer when she was 35, and then terminal breast cancer when she was 40 years old.  I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer when I was 30.  There is no other family history of breast cancer in my family – it’s just the two of us.   Obviously there was a genetic link between my mother and I, but the genetic counselor did not uncover that link.

This Angelina Jolie Effect that the article cites just reinforces my belief that breast cancer awareness does not work, has not work and will not work.  If someone actually believes that Pinktober has saved lives, point me to the article stating that because I just don’t believe it.  We have this inaccurate perception that breast cancer is an easy cancer (is cancer ever easy?), or girly, or not something anybody dies from, which is the complete opposite of the truth.  Let’s abolish awareness or these campaigns because it has nothing to do with its actual truth or helping people.

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I prefer this:

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