The Family

For updates on all the families, watch the Where Are They Now? clip on our Photos & Video page

JOANNA - Chicago

"They give you the information and then they're like. 'Don't Panic. Don't be neurotic. Don't be paranoid.' But your body can go off at anytime, and that pressure starts right away."

At 27, filmmaker Joanna Rudnick held a piece of paper with devastating information: positive for a deleterious mutation. She had always suspected cancer ran in her family - her mother is a 20-year survivor of ovarian cancer, and her grandmother and great-grandmother both fought breast cancer. But after testing positive for the BRCA mutation, she had evidence that she could be next.

As a science journalist and documentary filmmaker, Joanna did the one thing that made sense - set out to make a documentary exploring how the mutation was changing her life, while reaching out to other women and families caught up in the same confusing decision-making process.

Turning the video camera on herself, she bares her soul and confronts her deepest anxieties. Turning the video camera on her doctors' appointments, she takes us inside a barrage of invasive screening tests that could reveal her worst fears. Turning the video camera on her new relationship, she and her partner intimately capture a young couple falling in love in the shadow of the mutation.

MARTHA - Chicago

"When you get diagnosed with breast cancer, and you are part of a poverty-stricken community, it can be like 'why should I even bother?' I want to address that."

Martha is a three-time breast cancer survivor, poet, and founder of the African-American breast cancer support group "Celebrating Life." A life-long advocate for women's health, Martha began volunteering at a Chicago hospital at the age of 16. She has been a friend and support to hundreds of women with breast cancer, serving as a hotline operator, support group leader, and a volunteer prosthesis-fitter at County hospital - all while fighting her own 11 year battle with recurrent breast cancer.

As a survivor, she has channeled her frustration about health disparities - "Why do so many more black women than white women die of breast cancer?" - into action: speaking up and speaking out in support groups, in churches, and in her own family, about the need for better access to health care, including genetic testing.

Today, Martha lives with her daughter Alicia on Chicago's South Side and enjoys the frequent visits of her first grandson, Tyler. As she copes with metastatic cancer, Martha continues to volunteer at the hospital, while struggling to make ends meet - and get the care she needs - without a steady source of income or health insurance. As she decides to test for the BRCA mutation, she wonders if this information will finally give her an answer to the question "Why?"

Martha has graciously shared her poem, HOW, featured in In The Family


How can I fight you, when you insist on sneaking up on me?

How can I hide from you, for everywhere I go you try to find me?

How can I see myself as a "woman" when you insist upon disfiguring me?

How can I look at my daughter, sister and friend and wonder: Are you going to hurt them also.

How can I walk straight, when you try to ripple through my bones?

How can I wake up when you try to tell me there's no need to get up?


I can because even though you sneak up on me, I know your there, that's why the fight isn't over.

And why would I hide from you, seeing how you go out of your way to find me.

And I can still see myself as a woman,

"Because" it's not what you have done that defines my "Womanhood".

I am a "Woman" by God's Creation only and no one can take that away.

And I can look at my daughter, sister and friend, because as long as they see the fighter in me, they too will be fighters.

And when you try to brittle my bones I still can walk straight, for the road to recovery is just straight ahead.

And "YES" I can get up, because there's one thing you can't take from me and that's the ability to be a "Survivor".

Written By Martha Darlene Liddell Haley
Breast Cancer Survivor ©1997

LINDA - Boston

"In spite of how awful it is to feel less than female, being alive is what matters. And in retrospect, if I could have turned the clock back, I would've had all those surgeries. It may not be the ideal life that you want, but its life. You don't mess with that."

When Linda was 10, her mother died of ovarian cancer. Seven years later, her brother Gary fought bladder cancer. As Linda and her siblings grew up and started having families of their own, they hoped cancer was all in the past. Unfortunately, they were wrong. Linda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 42 - the same age her mother was diagnosed with the same disease - and at the same time her sister Lisa was fighting breast cancer. Linda, Lisa, and Gary have all tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation.

Joanna meets Linda as she completes another round of chemo, this time for breast cancer. Despite a protocol of surveillance, frequent MRIs and mammograms failed to find the tumor: "I'm living proof that the technology we have doesn't always catch things." Now, Linda's greatest concern is for her 16-year-old daughter Nicole and what this may mean for her future.

"I think once you know you might have the gene, I don't see how you can go through life not thinking about it." - Luis, Linda's husband

OLGA - Tucson

"Women in my family are lucky to live past 39"

Olga Flores is a professional singer and single mother working to build her career and support her 7-year-old daughter Selah. She comes from a family of strong women who share a love of music, a loud laugh, and a penchant for red lipstick. The women also share a more troubling connection - a BRCA mutation that caused her mother's breast cancer and her grandmother's ovarian cancer.

Although Olga often performs for large audiences throughout the Southwest, she is paralyzed by the thought of testing for the "breast cancer gene." With the support of her female relatives, Olga is ready to finally find out if she is part of the same legacy.

Joanna and Olga are the same age, 32, but they are at such different parts of the testing process. Joanna visits Olga and her family the weekend before she tests, and comes back to be with Olga when she gets her results a few months later.

"I just can't stop thinking about my mom, and if I have this, what it means for my daughter...I am just so scared."

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