By SHELLEY TERRY - firstname.lastname@example.org
Roxanne Walker was 13 when her mother, then 32, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In a way, it wasn’t a surprise.
Breast cancer killed her maternal great-grandmother in her 30s. Her maternal grandmother died of breast cancer at 39. Her maternal aunt got breast cancer when she was in her early 40’s, but survived, as did her cousin, who was diagnosed when she was still in her 20s.
“Am I next?” said Walker, a Jefferson native who’s now 36, and living in Fredericksburg, Va. “It’s always in the back of my mind.”
Genetic testing confirmed Walker has inherited the gene mutation that increases her risk of developing breast cancer. At age 36, and the mother of three young boys, she tries to maintain a healthy lifestyle. She works out, eats right and gets mammograms. She doesn’t want her children to experience what she and her siblings went through when their mother died in 1994.
“Only my closest, closest friends knew (her mother was terminally ill),” Walker said. “It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about and I didn’t want other people to talk about it and feel sorry for me. They didn’t know until she came to my high school graduation in a wheelchair.”
Her mother, Joanne K. Greening, died two weeks later at age 37. She left behind her partner, Ted, and four children ages 5 to 18.
To the youngest child, Katie Collins, who now is in the Navy and stationed in Hawaii, it all seems like a dream.
“She was a fighter, cleaning and cooking even with cancer; I remember that,” she said in an email to the Star Beacon. “(My brother) Teddy made her laugh
because he’s a goofball ... I wish I knew her better, but that’s what I remember of her and she was so beautiful.”
Teddy Collins, was 7 when his mother died.
Today, he is 26, single and living in Geneva, but what happened to his family after his mother died haunts him.
“Almost everything good in my life happened when she was alive,” he said. “She was always hugging me and holding me.”
After his mother died, Teddy struggled in school as his father and paternal grandparents helped the family stay together.
Walker temporarily took on the role of mother while working and taking college classes. She then married and left the state with her new husband, Gabe Walker, who was in the Marines.
Teddy and Katie were lost.
“I was young; I didn’t understand what was going on,” Teddy Collins said. “It hurt back then, but it seems like it’s getting worse as I get older.”
Walker felt sad to leave her younger siblings, but at the same time, excited to begin her new life.
She said her brother, Greg, who didn’t respond to questions for this story, was very close to his mother.
“Greg was 10 when mom died, and to this day, he misses the love and support only a mother can provide,” Walker said. “We all miss her.”
She cries as she talks about the last days with her mother.
“I remember when I was with Mr. (Fritz) Talcott my coach at Jefferson Area High School after track practice and I came home — it was my junior year — and there were all these cars in my driveway,” she said. “I immediately thought, ‘Oh my God! My mother! Did she die?’ She told me the cancer was in her lungs. It had Ping-Ponged all over her body.”
That was the beginning of the end, Walker said.
The cancer quickly spread to Greening’s brain. This brought on terrible headaches — so painful that she would roll on the floor screaming in pain. Eventually, she lost her sight in one eye.
“I felt exhausted from calling 911 and trying to be mother (to my siblings), sister and daughter; I was overwhelmed,” Walker said. “I just wanted to hold on to my mother as long as I could, but the more sick she got, the more I clung to my best friend Jessica.”
Walker had stayed overnight at Jessica’s house the night before her mother died.
“I woke up with the oddest feeling,” she said. “A voice inside me said I needed to go home. I believe someone from Heaven talked to me.”
When Walker arrived at her mother’s bedside, she found her mother waiting to say good-bye.
“She told me to live my life, my dreams and that she would always be there; then she went into a coma,” Walker said, tears flowing. “I am glad I saw my mom die. I couldn’t imagine my life if I wasn’t there to see her take her last breath.”
Today, Walker believes her mother should have had a different course of treatment. For example, she should have had both breasts removed when she was first diagnosed with cancer in one breast.
Instead, her mother only had the tumor removed; then the tumor came back and went to the other breast, as well.
“The knowledge wasn’t as good as it is now,” she said, noting she believes in more proactive treatments. “Sometimes the family just has to intervene.”
Walker believes every woman should have a yearly mammogram beginning at age 40 and earlier for women at risk, such as herself.
“Insist they get checked and have a mammogram,” she said.
She also recommends genetic testing, but because genetic testing is relatively new, researchers aren’t certain how many women have the gene. The average American woman has a 12 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime; this doubles if there’s a history of breast cancer in the family, according to the American Cancer Society.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, women with a “first degree relative” (mother or sister) who had breast cancer have a 30 percent chance of developing breast cancer, too.
Women who have a “second-degree relative” (grandmother, aunt or niece) have a 22 percent risk. For those with a “third-degree relative” (cousin, great-grandparent or great-aunt) who had breast cancer have a 16 percent risk.
Family history doesn’t always help predict a diagnosis because experts agree that only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary.
So far, Walker has been cancer-free, but she’s not letting her guard down — for herself and more importantly, for her children. She describes herself as a mother, hairdresser and a college student who loves to laugh and helping people.
Her life is her boys and she doesn’t plan on letting cancer take her away from them.