The Pedigree

I’ve been thinking about the women on the family tree, their circles blackened and crossed out. Elizabeth Breast, 31. Elizabeth’s cousin (name unknown): Breast, 30s. Elizabeth’s cousin (also name unknown): Breast, 30s. Diane, Breast, 44. Brain mets. 46. 

Circles signify women, and blackened circles signify cancer. Lines through them signify death.

I’ve been thinking about how we explain and classify these early deaths of four women in my family.

THE H1686R VARIANT HAS BEEN RECLASSIFIED TO ‘SUSPECTED DELETERIOUS’, MEANING IT IS SUSPECTED TO BE A SIGNIFICANT MUTATION AND IS LIKELY THE CAUSE OF THE BREAST CANCER IN DIANE’S FAMILY.

Letter to my father from Barbara Ann Karmanos Center Institute, Dated May 7, 2015, informing of newfound information on my late mother’s BRCA1 gene mutation known as H1686R.

I’ve been thinking about how names on a chart and genetic abnormalities deny a simple truth: cancer over and over again struck the symbol of feminine nurturing and sustenance–the breasts of young mothers–in my maternal lineage. 

I’ve been thinking about the assault on women’s bodies–and male bodies too. To paraphrase Eve Ensler, how patriarchy kills men in their hearts…and women in their breasts. Hearts and breasts. 

Photo of my grandmother Elizabeth

Certainly I’ve been thinking about my late mom (Diane), and the grandmother I never met (Elizabeth), and her cousins (names unknown) on the genetic chart, called a pedigree. I’ve been thinking about other women too.  Debby and Angela, two women I knew and admired, both not much older than myself, who died recently of breast cancer. Circles blackened and crossed out.

I’ve been thinking about the assault on our bodies and our land. Blackened and crossed.

I’ve been thinking about how our vitality as women and mothers is wrapped in the vitality of the earth. That waiting any longer to confront this truth is a pathology.

We can no longer deny the destiny that is ours by becoming women who wait–waiting to love, waiting to speak, waiting to act. This is not patience, but pathology. We are sensual, sexual beings, intrinsically bound to both Heaven and Earth, our bodies a hologram. In our withholding of power, we abrogate power, and that creates war. 

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS, When Women Were Birds

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Choosing to Dance: My Mother’s Breast Cancer Story

My mom was 43 years old the day that she listened to the voice. Five years older than I am as I type this.

She listened and so she lived. To see graduations, birthdays, weddings, births. To adopt new identities: Mother-in-Law, Great-Aunt, and yes, even Grandmother.

When my mother paused in the kitchen that day to listen, perhaps with her hand resting on the counter near the neat pile of bills and school flyers, her tea nearby cooling, she heard a voice tell her to check her left breast. Immediately. 

She did. Her world fell apart. A lump. Cancer. The mother of all cancers, stage 4. She powered through. Surgeries. An experimental stem-cell transplant. It was living hell. And yet she seemed to always find the humor in the midst of the horror. When cancer came back in the form of a brain tumor, she later would quip that “brain surgery was a breeze!” (and she meant it).

One day when getting cash from the ATM, her wig flew off and danced across the parking lot. She calmly walked over, retrieved it and placed it back on her head, not missing a beat.
“I could laugh or cry, but I would rather laugh,” she said.

My mother learned in the hardest way possible the importance of intimately knowing the map of your own body. She’d been diligent about annual mammograms. The year she found the lump, her most recent mammogram screening showed no irregularities. Of course, this was before the use of ultrasound and MRI screenings for high-risk patients, before testing for genetic mutations.

She would later confess that she avoided doing monthly self-exams. I was afraid of finding something, she told me. She understood the absurdity of this, but fear holds a strong grip. When she was twelve years old she saw her mother die of breast cancer. Her fear was a real one.

(I think she would want you to know that the voice she heard that day in the kitchen, it was her late mother speaking. It was my mother’s voice, she said. My mother told me to immediately check my left breast.)

Today I share my mom’s story because she cannot. She passed away in 2013.

Her story is this: my mother faced her largest fear—of finding cancer with her own hands. She chose to listen to quiet, loving voice that ultimately saved her life.  While the costs were often great (so many sacrifices were made, of body and mind and spirit) she was able to celebrate nearly two more decades of birthdays. Of wedding anniversaries.

My mom was famous for starting conga lines at parties. Her life was a lesson in choosing to dance no matter the music that is playingcelebratory or sad, bleak or hopeful. She taught me that even when there are detours to dark and scary places, if you follow your heart, it will not lead you astray. It might even extend the dance.


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