Saturday, December 29, 2007

All in the family

Families are steeped in tradition and values. Families create paths of memories, good and bad. Sometimes there are bridges built to cross troubled waters, and sometimes there are forks that lead families in different directions. Sometimes we love the people we call family, and sometimes we would rather leave them. But the one thing that no one can deny in a family... genetics.

Gene's make your hair blonde or brunette, and sometimes black or red. They make your eyes blue, brown, green or something in between. Gene's make you tall, or short, slim or not so much. Genes make your skin pale or dark - black, white, yellow, red - and genes even determine its tone and texture.

Gene's can also determine what kind of life you will lead. A healthy and strong effervescent life, a long and prosperous life. Or one that is filled with wonder, worry, illness and a whole lot of "what if"s". For most of my life, I believed that my family genetics held promise for long life of health and little concern.

My grandmother comes from a very large family of 18 siblings. Although illness plagued some when they aged, most lived fairly long and healthy lives. My grandfather was from a smaller stock of family. It was he and his only sister Mary. Both Mary and my grandfather passed very young. So young that they were denied the opportunity to meet the many generations that followed. But there was little thought that their illnesses were of concern for the rest of the family.

Nine years ago, that perspective began to change. Nine years ago, in just a few weeks, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 Carcinoma of the Breast. It didn't start off looking quite that serious. Mom found a lump in her right breast just before Christmas. She waited a few weeks to have any tests done as she didn't want to ruin the holiday for herself nor the family. When she went in for a needle biopsy, the tests showed it was benign, and rather small. But mom chose to have a lumpectomy nonetheless. The rest became a fog. Shortly after mom was taken in, her surgeon came out to speak to all of us. It was cancer. It was very aggressive, and it was not at all what they expected. They closed mom up and prepared us for a more in depth procedure the following week. After months of chemotherapy, and several rounds of radiation, very little hair loss and a whole lot of prayers, mom got better.

She spent all of 2000 healthy. She travelled, worked as hard as always, spent a lot more time with her family, and gave her son away to his new bride. She also spent a lot of extra time playing grandma to her "tinker bell" Samantha. Mantha was the light of her life. Mom was an amazing grandmother. I sometimes think they got so close because mom knew her time with Mantha was limited.

2001 started out promising for mom. She got a clean bill of health on Valentine's Day, and her children were finally settled with their life partners - Ted married to Theresa for almost a year, and me, building a new home with Jim and Samantha. Mom even celebrated the spring holidays - my 30th with a huge surprise party, and Easter - without doing all the work, allowing me to start some traditions on my own. Mothers Day the family came from all over to gather for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. The second one we walked in her honor.

But there was a shadow looming for the family. Mom's sister Mitz was diagnosed with Breast Cancer nearly two years to the date of mom's diagnosis - January of 2001. It was scary for Mitz, and mom was disheartened that her sister was ill with the same horrible disease. But everyone stayed positive, and helped Mitz heal. And during that same Mothers Day walk, we honored her too. And the shadow drew nearer. Mom was struggling that day to walk. She was in pain, although all the photo's I have of the event, you never would have known it. She spent part of the walk riding on the lap pf her nephew R.J. in his wheel chair. But she never really let on how bad it was.

Over the next few weeks it was visible to all of us that something was terribly wrong. Mom was growing weaker, and her spirit was not as alive. By Memorial Day mom had gotten very sick. For almost the whole month she had been told she had a pinched Sciatica - but we didn't believe it. She has lost well over 25#, was completely emaciated, and looked to have aged 25 years. Then she took a tumble down a flight of stairs. Wednesday May 30, 2001, Bruce and I took her to the emergency room. We spent the next 3 days fighting to get answers. Begging for tests and denying results until there was no other option.

Friday June 1st we were heartbroken with the news the Cancer was back. Monday June 4th, we were told to cherish what we had left, as mom was terminal and she had less then a year. Metastatic Carcinomal Menengitis of the Breast and Brain. Four months later, on October 3, 2001, mom left us. But when she left, her legacy remained.

Mom was tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 Cancer Gene's earlier in the year. Mom desired knowledge. Mom desired answers. Mom desired prevention for her family members. Mom tested positive. BRCA2 was the gene that was linked to the Cancer that she succombed to. BRCA2 carries high risk for both Breast and Ovarian Cancers in women, and Breast and Prostate Cancers in men.

In January of 2002 I was tested, and too was positive for the gene. Since then, another of mom's sisters Cathy was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Again in January. Two years from the date of their sister Mitz, four years from the date of mom's first diagnosis.

Just this past month, mom's cousin Mary Margaret was tested, and she too tested positive for BRCA2. Mary Margaret was the only natural child of my grandfather's sister Mary. Mary passed from Ovarian Cancer many years before.

The link has now connected to both sides of the family.

Its all in the Gene's. All in the family.

So what does this mean for all of us? Some of us have had Cancer's. Myself included. Some of us are considering profolactic surgeries to prevent other Cancer's. Myself included. All of us are cherishing life a little more, and all of us are taking nothing for granted.

As we look forward to 2008, our family will continue to question what is right and wrong in our genetic makeup, and we will gather around those who struggle with the disease. We will also celebrate the health of each other, and support the decisions some of us will chose to make to live longer, stronger, healthier lives. And even though 2008 has not yet begun, we will look forward to 2009!
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