What's your family history?
That's something doctors ask a lot. I know that's their roundabout way of asking my medical history — if breast cancer runs in the family.
As I sat in an exam room I heard my doctor ask the question, I knew what he wanted.
But I didn't want to give it to him.
I didn't want to give him a laundry list of names, people with a diagnosis.
I wanted to paint him a picture of strong woman who came before me, each with rich vibrant lives that had nothing to do with their cancer battles.
I first heard about Eula, Rina and Rilla Coursey from my maternal grandma. The three sisters were her aunts, her dad's sisters.
"I stayed with my aunt Rina one summer," my grandma told me. "Every morning during my stay there she would braid my hair down the back and call it platting my hair. Nothing really spectacular, just nice things to think about. She used to let me help her hang clothes on the clothesline and brought out an old galvanized washtub for me to stand on to help because there were the red ants all over the ground underneath the clothesline."
Oh, the silly things we remember—she said.
The three were born in the 1800s the daughters of Absolum Coursey, the sheriff of Llano County, Texas.
As a kid, I remember thinking he sounded stern. Absolum is a stern-sounding name, after all.
Rina and Rilla (short for Marilla) married brothers.
Rina married Euel Moore, a county commissioner in Llano County, and a farmer. Rilla married Edgar Moore, who was also a farmer.
They were farm wives and worked out in the fields with their husbands, raising something like 13 kids each.
My grandma remembers that Eula was her dad's favorite aunt. He named his daughter, my grandma's sister, after her. Eula was married to an officer with the United States Air Force.
"Oh, and there's a museum, in Llano Texas where they all lived, dedicated to the Coursey family as a pioneer family of Llano," my grandma told me.
Breast cancer took Eula first, when she was in her early 30's.
Rina and Rilla were in their 80's when they succumbed to the cancer.
Their cancer was a barely a footnote in their otherwise dynamic lives.
Breast cancer was in Jeanne's genes, but I doubt she ever gave it much thought. She was the daughter of Eula—the second Eula.
Jeanne Nycum was beautiful and vivacious and always smiling.
Jeanne loved being a stay-at-home mom with her son. She was crafty and as sweet as they come.
I remember being told her dad was overseas in Korea when she was born.
"What's my history?" I thought.
Fiery, hardworking women. Sturdy stock—that's my history.
It's much the same on the paternal side of the family.
My grandma, Shirley, makes the best cinnamon rolls you'll ever have. Seriously.
I can't think about my grandma and not instantly smell cinnamon.
My grandma, Shirley, had two sisters, Billie and Betty.
All three survived their husbands and found ways to forget ahead and make good lives for their children.
My grandma stays busy—even now. As a kid I remember marveling at the work she put into running a store with my aunt. I'd ride my bike there after school and spend afternoons watching them put price stickers on new items I was sure I needed. It was the kind of store everyone found a little something they needed—and I swear she knew everyone that walked through the door.
With three kids to raise, she worked hard. When grandkids came along she was still working hard—but was never too busy to spoil us rotten. (Did I mention the cinnamon rolls?)
When she told me she had breast cancer it was an afterthought.
Could you put the rolls in the oven for me?
Oh, my mastectomy is next week.
350 degrees on those rolls.
She didn't want to make a fuss – either time.
She is private and modest and will never forgive me for mentioning her mastectomy.
She almost didn't tell us when it came back. Again she fought it—because that's what the women in our family do.
Betty was the oldest, born in 1926 and Billie was next in 1946.
Betty worked as a cook in a nursing home and was active in her church. No one was hungry on her watch. She cooked with love, and everyone could tell.
She imparted a lot of wisdom and always had a word of advice to share. If you've ever wondered where old wives tales came from, it was my aunt Betty. I'm sure of it.
She fought cancer and won. When she passed away, she did so as a cancer survivor.
Billie was a school teacher forever and as a child I was fairly certain she knew everything. About everything.
To this day I'm not positive what she taught—because she seemed to have every subject mastered. Billie has beat breast cancer twice, too.
I could talk about how strong grandma and Billie are, but despite the fact that I'm a grown woman, they'll still threaten to box my ears. And with these two, I'm not going to risk it.
These are women who buckle down and do what needs to be done. No muss, no fuss.
That's why, as I sat in the exam room, and heard the doctor tell me he was sending me for a mammogram at 28 years old. I didn't worry.
Instead, I thought about these women.
"Considering your history, I think we ought to be cautious," he told me.
My history is making the most of any situation. My history is strong women showing love and taking care of business.
My history is fighting battles.
Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don't.
But you always fight.