Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Keeping Perspective When Reading Obituaries

Tuesday, 24 Dec 2013 10:00 AM

By Ronni Gordon

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Sometimes when you've had cancer, you can't stop yourself from reading obituaries about people who died from what you had. When I read about a relatively young person who died from "my" type of leukemia — acute myeloid leukemia (AML) – I get inexplicably upset.
 
My first reaction is to feel sorry about the person who died, but next comes the problem of the obituary bringing it home to you that you could die. I checked this out with a friend who had breast cancer, and she said the same thing happens to her.
 
We know that cancer can kill you, but you would go crazy if you thought about that all the time. An obituary, or the news of a death delivered another way, slaps you in the face with this frightening realization.
 
I was in the hospital receiving chemotherapy for leukemia when the news came over the television that four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher had died of a recurrence of leukemia after a recent stem-cell transplant. She was 51 — just about my age.
 
My social worker went around turning the televisions off on the floor that was just for leukemia patients. She knew how our minds worked.
 
Once I was having lunch with a group friends when we heard that one of our favorite actresses, Jill Clayburgh, had died of cancer. They didn’t want me to find out that she had died of leukemia. But on the way out of the restaurant, I saw a newspaper with her obituary and read that she had died of a different kind of leukemia, chronic myeloid leukemia n(CML). I was saddened by Clayburgh’s death, but did not feel vulnerable because of it.
 
It was, however, doubly difficult when the brilliant, vibrant, and talented writer Nora Ephron died last year of AML.
 
My friend and I have discussed our reactions, hers to breast cancer and mine to leukemia, and we have concluded that we must say to ourselves, "This is someone else." I imagine other cancer survivors have these reactions too.
 
Obituaries can also attract your attention for positive reasons. On Sunday, the word leukemia caught my eye in an obit for physician Janet D. Rowley, who had died earlier in the week at the age of 88 of ovarian cancer.
 
She discovered that cancer was genetic by studying photos of chromosomes from patients with blood cancers. She cut the photos into tiny fragments that her children called "paper dolls," laying the pieces on the table and ordering her children not to sneeze, according to an obituary in The New York Times.
 
After cutting a sheaf of photos of images from the chromosomes of a patient with AML, she noticed that two chromosomes had inappropriately swapped genetic material. She then saw that photos from other AML patients showed the same genetic swap. Voila! The work of "the matriarch of modern cancer genetics" helped establish cancer as a genetic disease and laid the groundwork for targeted drug therapies for specific cancers.
 
Sometimes reading the obituaries is not bad at all.
 
 
 

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