Kim Knows the Importance of Talking about Hereditary Cancer


There’s a funny scene in the 1985 film, St. Elmo’s Fire, when Billy (Rob Lowe) is having dinner at the family home of his date for the evening, Wendy (Mare Winningham). It’s apparent, by the formal meal served on china and crystal, that the family is very wealthy and proper. Wild child Billy quickly learns just how proper the family of his new girlfriend really is when they start talking about some friends and family members. Every time I watch the movie I giggle at the comment they make about someone who’s just been diagnosed with cancer. They all speak normally up until the moment they have to say the word. It’s then that they all stop, look at each other and whisper the word ”cancer” across the table. It’s clearly too terrible a word to speak out loud.

This scene has always amused me because it’s completely the opposite of the scene at my house. Or at my Maw Maw’s (grandma’s) house, I should say. Our dinner table was filled with family and friends, just like the one on St. Elmo’s Fire. We talked nonstop while eating (not on china and crystal, though) about our comings and goings, too. The biggest difference at my family’s dinner table is that the word cancer was NEVER whispered. We always spoke it – loud and proud.

You see, my Maw Maw, mother of six kids and grandmother to 16, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976. She was only 56 years old. From the moment her healthcare professional delivered the news of her diagnosis, my family (made up of many more dramatic women than men) became sort of obsessed – obsessed with the dates of everyone’s annual checkups, obsessed with how long it took for mammogram results to be returned, obsessed with who just might be next?! This obsession seemed warranted when my mom’s oldest sister, Jo Jo, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36. Hysteria ensued when Jo Jo’s oldest daughter, my cousin Heather, was also diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26. Breast cancer was wreaking havoc in my family and all us women felt as if we were just playing a waiting game – waiting for our dreaded turn in line.

Because we all thought it was simply our destiny to get breast cancer, we were ”all up in each other’s business.” It’s why we all went to ’ appointments together, it’s why we were all familiar with the protocol of the local mammogram center and why we all held our breath when the clinic called with the results. And it’s why we were all stunned into silence (what?!) when we learned about a genetic test for the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes that would truly inform us of our risk for developing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. WHAT?! A simple blood test?

Genetic testing changed the course of my family’s history. So far, 12 family members have been tested for the BRCA gene mutation; seven have had positive results, while five found out they were negative. Two of the seven positive patients (including my mom) have had double mastectomies and total hysterectomies. Even though major surgery wasn’t easy and required a good amount of time for recovery and recuperation, having that option allowed my mom to beat cancer to the punch! She would have been one of the next in line for the dreaded diagnosis. Cancer’s winning streak ends here!

In this, the month of Thanksgiving, I offer up thanks for many things. I am thankful for the strength and courage of my Maw Maw, the matriarch of my large and loud family. She set the tone for all of us – that cancer would not be something we whisper and tip-toe around; rather, we talk about it and stand firm in the belief that we can beat it.

I am, also, thankful for the powerful knowledge genetic testing provided me and many of my family members. Whether you test positive or negative, there’s power in that information. And everyone knows that powerful people don’t whisper – they speak loud and proud!