I never imagined my Aunt Joan would die of cancer, just like my mother and grandmother.
In fact, I never imagined her dying at all. She was the youngest, the vibrant, adventurous one. The sister so much in love with her husband. They were matched bookends who traveled the world, settled into retirement and the tennis and golf set like settling into well-worn, beloved shoes. She just seemed so young. Strong.
The call came last Wednesday night. Breast cancer. Her family only found out recently, as it had only been diagnosed barely three weeks ago. Like my mother, and her mother, she never went to the doctor. Not even at the first sign of trouble.
My grandmother died of cervical cancer, a cancer detected early through a PAP smear.
My mother died of colon cancer, a cancer detected early through a colonscopy.
Joan died of breast cancer, a cancer detected early through a mammogram.
It was horrid watching my mother die of cancer, watching her laughing, smiling face dissolve into a mask of constant pain. But as horrible as it was, it wasn’t the same kind of shell-shocked blow Joan’s death delivered. No warning. No chance to say good-bye.
Just a phone call in the afternoon.
I just wanted to sit numbly and let the tears fall. Because of a lost chance. Because that part of my family is gone now, for good. And I'll never get it back again. The last time I saw her, Joan told me funny stories about growing up with my mom. I felt connected, as if mom were still alive. That part of my life has been severed. I had no chance to say good-bye. But that's nothing compared to what her family lost. My uncle lost his love of 50 years, my cousins lost their mom and my second cousin lost her grandmother. They had no warning.
Nothing can prevent cancer. I know that for a fact, from watching friends who ate healthy, exercised and lived healthy, subcumb to it. But there are tests that can detect it early. Treatments that can save lives or at least prolong them. Breast cancer was detected early in one of my friends years ago on a mammogram. Today, I still email that friend. She’s alive, well and doing great, and she saw her daughter graduate from high school.
Saturday was my birthday. I drove Friday from my aunt’s memorial service back home and then Frank drove me over to Naples for a quiet weekend away. On Saturday, he gave me a special gift as we dined with friends. A copy of my third book, THE COBRA & THE CONCUBINE. He had called Dorchester and Diane, sweet person she is, expressed him an early copy just for my birthday.
I was thrilled to see the book. I opened it up to the special thanks I had written. At the very end, I saw what I had written for Frank. My inspiration and greatest love.
Then I looked up into his smiling face, the face that has loved me dearly for nearly ten years now. And I realized how I don’t want to ever put him through what my grandfather went through, my father went through.
What my uncle just endured.
I can’t prevent cancer, but I sure as hell can do everything in my power to get an early warning.
All I could think of was my cousin Susan walking me to the car Friday, when I was leaving after the memorial service was over. She gave me a big hug and said to me, almost fiercely, “We’re not going to let it happen to us.”
Saturday was my birthday. My birthday gift to myself this year is a pap smear, a colonoscopy and a mammogram.
Susan’s right. We’re NOT going to let it happen to us.