Sisters Weekend - Everybody into The Gene Pool!

May 2007


My Aunt Jan is dying of cancer. There are five Picket Girls. Cathie, June, Audrey, Karen, and the youngest, Jan. The Baby is dying first. The Sisters are flung across the globe, but every year they come together for a Sisters Weekend. Since Aunt Jan's been so ill, they've been doing Sisters Weekends every few months in her home city of Las Vegas. Two months ago, I called my mother and asked if it would be ok if I joined them for one night on their next gathering. I want to see my Aunt Jan before she passes. Now I'm on a plane to Vegas for an overnighter.


The timing is.... Ominous? Mmm.. Foreboding? Closer. The Universe trying to get my attention? BINGO! As it happens, I am waiting for my own breast cancer biopsy results. But not really.


Five Picket Girls. Aunt Audrey is in the middle. She got breast cancer in her 30's. No nonsense Audrey did not wallow. Mastectomy. Chemo. Radiation. No reconstruction and no shame! She walked proudly on a nude beach. She had the daughter she'd always dreamed of and breast fed! It came back. Repeat. Mastectomy. Chemo. Radiation. Head up. Get through. Upward and Onward! Almost a quarter century later she's the Assistant Super Attendant for an LA County School District, with a PhD to her credit. An amazing Survivor.


Five Picket Girls. Jan got it next. Lumpectomy. Chemo. Radiation. It came back. Repeat. Again. Repeat. "It's in her spine." "It's in her ovaries." "It's in her brain." God, how many brain surgeries did she have? Sometime in the middle of this years long horror a genetic marker, BRCA1, was discovered. Women with this genetic mutation have a 60% chance of chance of getting breast cancer, and a 55% of getting ovarian cancer.

Five Picket Girls, whose own paternal aunts died young, had the genetic testing.


Cathy - Negative - Her three girls can breathe a sigh of relief.


June - Positive - That's my mother. She'll get Cancer in 2008.


Audrey - Positive - Her daughter as well. Her son will have to be tested for his daughter.


Karen - Negative - Her kids are clear.


Jan - Positive - No surprise there. Her boys will be tested for their kids./


So..... I'm not really waiting for the results of my biopsy as I fly to Las Vegas. There were two lumps in my left breast that look like cancer to the doctors. What I'm really waiting for are the results of my genetic test. If I have the BRCA1 marker I'll have a double mastectomy and my ovaries removed in three weeks. I've already decided on reconstruction. If it's negative, we'll consider other options. But really, who are we kidding? I scheduled the surgery the day before. I know the answer already. I'm 41. I have Breast Cancer and some serious decisions to make.


I'm looking forward to seeing my aunts, my mother June, not so much. She agitates me. Aunt Audrey and I check in at the hotel. We catch up and I'm comforted and thrilled to see that she is in excellent health and spirits. When I see Jan it is a shock. She is ravaged. She is shaking. She is Dying. You'd know it if nobody told you. "I'm sorry." says June. "I should have warned you. It's been gradual, but you haven't seen her in so long...." Jan is in a wheelchair in baggy sweats in the heat. A scarf. A hat. Sunglasses. I want to run. To her and away from her at the same time. This is Cancer. I have Cancer. I bend down and hug her. She didn't know I was coming. "Seeing you is the best birthday present I could ever have." She turns 50 in five days.


The older sisters wait on Jan hand and foot. Their offers to fetch her things interupt and fall over each other. I teasingly call her a princess. She hates this. "I'm so fucking tired of being the sick one." She cried to me a couple of months ago over the phone. "I want to talk about something else. If one more person asks me how I feel it will be all I can do not to punch them." She's relieved that her sisters are being honest now. She felt like she was dissapointing them when they assured her she'd pull through and she knew she wouldn't. She was tired. She was pissed. She was scared. She was worried about what would happen to her youngest, a brilliant young man, in and out of jail, an alcoholic at age twenty-five.


We cook frozen pizzas in the room and Audrey makes Cosmos. The Picket Girls are lightweights. Everyone is tipsy. We play Password, the boardgame version of the old t.v. show. There is cheating and laughing and stories and memories. We discuss my surgery plans. No one's even pretending my tests will come back negative. Audrey and my mother are firmly of the belief that I should forgo reconstruction to avoid complications. (If only I'd listened!) The sisters are all flat chested. I am DDD. I cannot imagine myself without breasts. And now I can have perky boobs, small enough to wear cute clothes. Aunt Cathy thinks its good that I'm looking toward the future. At one point Audrey leans over and I see her flat chest and mastectomy scars. They horrify me. I break out in a sweat.


It gets late. There are two beds. Four sisters sleep in the beds. June and I sleep on the pull-out couch using hotel robes for blankets. June is about to retire from her job a teacher for army brats on a German military base. I made sure I scheduled my surgery before the end the school year so she couldn't be at the hospital. While we lay on the couch she tells me to to contact the Red Cross so they will pay for her to fly over for the surgery. "No. I don't want you to leave your students. You're moving back stateside the week after. You can help then." She scoffs at this. I say, "Seriously, I don't want you coming." "Well, I'm coming anyway." I take a deep breath and say firmly, "No. You're not coming to the hospital." Silence.


On my flight home I am resolved. No doubt in my mind. You Do Not Fuck With Cancer. Cut them off. Cut them out. No chances. Take it all. The tests, of course, all come back positive. We get the results ten minutes after finding out my husband's lifelong best friend has died. His neck was snapped in a car accident at the bottom of his parent's driveway the night before. The long drive to the funeral was more than surreal. My husband, our fifteen-year-old son, and I, all sitting in stunned silence.


I manage to keep June out of the country until after my surgery but it is ugly. "I can't have you here. I throw up for days before every one of your visits." My mother hangs up the phone on me, doesn't talk to me for days, lays on the guilt, but never asks why.


I cry for days when my Aunt Jan dies. I am too sick from chemo to go to her funeral.



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