Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Glimpse Into History: An Anecdote from One Family's BRCA Story

Kate, Karen's grandmother
As depicted in Joanna Rudnick’s documentary In the Family and Decoding Annie Parker, a feature film directed by Steve Bernstein and starring Helen Hunt and Samantha Morton, every BRCA family has a story.

I’m honored that Karen, one of my friends and a BRCA sister, too, has shared an anecdote from her family’s story, and with her permission, I’m sharing it here, almost exactly as she told it to me:

When I cleaned out my parents’ house in 2013, I came across packets and packets of letters that they’d saved from their long distance courtship and the early days of their marriage. Only recently have I been reading the letters my mom wrote to my dad. 
Trudie, Karen's mom 

In early 1954, barely a year after my parents married and immigrated to the United States, my mother returned to England to care for her 62-year-old mother – my grandmother Kate, for whom I'm named.

In one of these wonderful letters to my dad, my mother wrote that my grandmother could barely walk and thought she was being treated for bad arthritis in her knee and leg.  In fact, the doctors thought it best not to share the truth, telling her only that there wasn't much they could do except to offer some radiation. In that same letter, my mother wrote that her mother also suffered from a lot of pelvic and lower back pain.  After six weeks caring for her mom, my mother returned to New York at the insistence of her parents. About a year later, in early 1955, my grandmother died from what my mother always said was uterine cancer. Knowing what I know now, including that my grandmother had a sister who died from breast cancer, I'm certain it was ovarian cancer – not uterine cancer – that took her life.  

Karen, with her mom and her daughter
Forty years later, in 1994, my mother, too, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 62 – the exact same age my grandmother was when she was diagnosed. My mom also had trouble walking because cancerous lymph nodes blocked the flow of blood to her lower leg.  Luckily, a podiatrist thought something was terribly wrong and referred my mother to an oncologist. 

Karen’s mom went on to beat cancer twice, and died in 2013 from a stroke. In closing her story, Karen told me something about her family’s letters that I think will resonate with anyone who has been affected by hereditary cancer:  I cherish these letters more than any material thing.  They’re also a great glimpse into history and highlight how fortunate we are to be able to benefit from the medical and scientific progress that has been made in this field in the past 60 years.