In the Suburbs / Reflecting on breast cancer connections during prevention month
We met our dear friend Dena at a fraternity dance in 1964 at Northern Illinois University, where her then-boyfriend Alan, later husband, and I were students. The connection was instant for my then-girlfriend, later wife, and me. There was just something special and warm about Dena, and that never changed over the last 53 years until a rare and painful form of breast cancer stole her life in mid-July and left us with a void that will be almost impossible to replace.
Dena had sent us a text while we were in China that after three years of different, failed experimental chemo infusions with different kinds of drugs, she was suspending all treatments and entering home hospice. She had told us the cancer was incurable, but mixing the words and the reality were especially painful.
We knew the treatments had been debilitating. The cancer had entered her bones, sapping her strength, giving her a nuisance rash and at times robbing Dena of her voice. There were other unpleasant side effects also.
But through this downward spiral, Dena remained strong and caring as she always had been, always asking about our upcoming adoption trip and telling us how wonderful everything would be. We still managed long conversations, and she and my wife, who had suffered a mild heart attack in 2014, were true kindred spirits about illness and pain. My wife often expressed tearfully that Dena did not deserve this kind of death sentence.
We were so grateful that she was able to enjoy her son’s wedding some four years ago and the birth of their miracle grandchild, Jacob. Sadly, Dena’s lack of strength kept her from the early day care role she had played with Jake. And the finale of her life cheated Dena out of the birth of her second grandchild in August.
When I spoke to Alan after our return from China, I said we were planning to attend a wedding in mid-August and wanted to visit Dena. There was a pause. “I’m afraid she won’t be here,” he said. “We are talking about weeks and maybe even days. This thing is so aggressive."
When Dena died in mid-July, Al’s message was brief. “Call me” was all it said.
Our phone call was equally brief and with both of us choking up, he said not to even think about coming out. He said that we’d spent enough in our trip to China. Of course, we ignored him, packed up the car and drove to Chicago that weekend to be there for Alan. But he was so grateful when we walked through the door, and after the tears and hugs, we spent hours crying and laughing and sharing those wonderful memories of 53 years. As Alan said, “Dena was a beautiful person, but she was the glue that kept our family together.”
Sadly, Dena’s story is the story of millions of other women battling breast cancer and hoping for survival. They are wives, mothers, sisters, friends and acquaintances, shouting out for stronger, more successful treatments. And it’s the story of men also who have experienced the disease.
It was ironic that after battling a form of cancer that emerged from a lumpectomy, the deadly cancer was something totally new that came from out of nowhere and took her so fast.
We lost another close friend, Frannie, who could have been saved with more careful diagnosis, about 10 years ago. Like Dena, Frannie was the glue for her family, reassuring and caring to the end. We always hoped she would beat it. The day before she died, one of our friends, who was with her at the end, kept telling her to just rest and stop paying bills.
My grandmother, my mother and my aunt were part of the groups that eventually became linked to the BRCA gene, the blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify harmful changes (mutations) in either one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes — BRCA1 and BRCA2. All had mastectomies, and my mom and grandmother had a double mastectomy. All survived to live long lives, and my aunt is still going strong at 88. They were true survivors.
There is still no permanent cure for breast cancer, but from what I have been reading lately, researchers are turning up connections to statin drugs, various foods and even forms of bacteria. All I can hope for is that fighters like Dena and Frannie and my family, among others, will help pioneer a permanent solution. This battle isn’t being fought for one month. Every day of every year is a challenge with little triumphs.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.