Standing up to the Elephant in the Room

I haven’t written in a while – I’ve just been too busy with life, and also unfortunately with death.  As I wrote a few months ago, my BRCA1+ mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer that had metastasized to her bones and liver.  She passed away on Mother’s Day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to write about this from my various positions in relation to her – my love for her as a daughter-in-law, my sadness for my husband and my son, my fear as a BRCA2+ woman watching someone close to me die from the disease that might eventually get me, too. While I think about how I want to write about this myself (which I will do eventually), I wanted to post a tribute that her cousin, Susie, read at her funeral, which was a week ago today.  Susie is an outreach coordinator for FORCE in Boston – she is also BRCA1+ and has had breast and fallopian cancer – I can’t imagine what it was like for her to watch her cousin disappear before her eyes.

I’m posting this because it’s not a typical eulogy.  It’s a BRCA eulogy – there’s really no other way to describe it.  I know anyone who reads this blog will hear in this tribute their own story or the story of a family member who has passed away, because we have all spent various parts of our lives trying to break free from the crushing weight of this elephant.  I’m so proud of Susie for standing up at Sheila’s funeral – in front of probably 200 people – and talking about this.

Here’s what she wrote:

I don’t have to tell you how much Sheila adored her family and how much we adored her.

I don’t have to tell you about Sheila’s endless capacity for giving – of her love, her time, her energy, her skills, her Mandel bread.

I don’t have to tell you how important her friends and her community were to her.

These are things that all of you know already.

What I want to say might be unusual for a memorial service. But I feel like I need to talk about the elephant in the room: Cancer.

And no, I’m not going to talk about what cancer did to Sheila’s body. Or make a speech about why it is important to donate to cancer research.

When I started to look back at Sheila’s life, I realized that because of our family’s genetic predisposition to cancer, Sheila had to stare cancer in the face from the time she was very young, maybe 7 years old, and our grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. As children, Sheila and her brother Carl lived with their parents and our grandparents in the same house. Even back in the 50s when nobody talked about cancer, there was no hiding it from the kids in that situation. From that point until the moment she drew her last breath, whether she was conscious of it or not, Sheila’s life and her spirit were shaped by cancer.

What I want you all to remember about Sheila and that elephant called cancer is that despite living under its shadow almost continuously for over 60 years, Sheila never let the elephant crush her spirit.

She was always amazingly graceful and grateful; warm, funny and strong. Over the years, when family members or close friends were in the grips of cancer, she was our rock, schlepping with us to doctors appointments, holding our hands during treatments, making sure we were ok and well fed after treatments or surgeries. Most importantly, she never allowed us to give in to self-pity for more than a few minutes. And that wasn’t easy, especially with me as she reminded me only two weeks ago – pointing at me with her impeccably polished fingernails – and declaring that I am the biggest crybaby in a family known for its crybabies.

Sheila never wanted to be defined by cancer and based on the wonderful memories that so many of you have shared over the past few days, she absolutely succeeded.

Standing here today, I know that Sheila would not want us to let cancer crush our spirits. Forgive me for borrowing a phrase but if she could stand up to cancer for 60 years without losing the incredibly positive spirit that we all know and love, then so can those of us who love her.  Thanks.



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