My paternal aunt, "Aunt Margie", died this week at age 90, from a recurrence of ovarian cancer. She was a two time breast cancer survivor, and lived for 8 years after her ovarian cancer diagnosis. Since my own familial breast cancer is indelibly linked to hers, I am grateful for her remarkable longevity and spirit.
Growing up, we knew about the, "cancer curse" that felled so many on my Dad's side. We breathed, whispered, gasps of relief, that this would not be our legacy...Daddy's side...we were safe. Little did we know, it was an even darker history than we knew, since it was never openly talked about.
My aunt was unusual, for her time. A college graduate, who majored in Biology, she left her younger siblings and parents, to marry and raise her own family out of state. Despite sadness and tragedy that included losing her mother in her 60's, her 19 year old son, (in a freak accident) her brother (my Dad) and sister within 6 months of each other,in their forties, and her husband to cancer, she more than persevered.
My aunt and uncle raised two brilliant children, who went on to have successful careers and families of their own. They travelled extensively. Aunt Margie continued to do so, even after my uncle passed. She loved to dance and was a group joiner. She weathered her own diagnosis', surgeries and treatments like a trooper. Her life was far from charmed, but she made it joyous and happy.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37, we thought it was simply, lousy luck. Not genetics. At the time, even my Dr.'s agreed...no correlation, since the breast cancer was on my Dad's side. 4 years later, when Aunt Margie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I wanted to hear the full account of the true history. Devastated by the truth, I knew I wanted to be genetically tested...this was no mere coincidence, I thought, as it turns out, correctly.
I harbored a lot of anger toward her over the years. Had I known the full extent of what is, in fact, my legacy, I would have made some different choices and felt that Aunt Margie, as the steward of this information, should have been more forthcoming. I know that much of this was mired in the thinking of her generation, that the "C" word was not openly discussed. Her intentions, could not have been deliberately hurtful.
I am grateful that we live in more open, enlightened times and that the work of dedicated researchers has brought us genetic testing. I am grateful to Sue Friedman, who founded FORCE, an amazing Internet support group for women (and men), at high risk for familial breast and ovarian cancer (www.facingourrisk.org). And lastly, I am grateful to Aunt Margie, because her full life of 90 years, gives me hope and is cause to celebrate.
Rock on, Aunt Margie. Rest in Peace.