“I’ve outlived three oncologists”
This article draws upon an interview Joanne Perriens had with our MiraGuide Amanda in June 2016. We were deeply saddened to learn that Joanne lost her battle to breast cancer shortly after they spoke on December 23, 2016. We would like to dedicate this piece in memory of Joanne’s remarkable life in the hopes that her unfailing and selfless spirit “can keep living” in all who read of it. In addition, we would like to thank Joanne’s daughter, Laura for providing the text of her keynote address from the 2017 ACS Relay for Life, her testament to her “best friend and idol.”
Resilient and selfless: no two words better articulate the character of Joanne Perriens, a fearless fighter of breast cancer for over thirty years, and an irreplaceable member of the MiraKind community. First diagnosed at age 46, Joanne faced three recurrences of breast cancer, two mastectomies, and years of treatment, and also watched her daughter, an 11-year survivor, endure this relentless disease. Although she battled a metastatic resurgence of breast cancer in her final years, Joanne still did not expect anyone’s pity or sympathy. Instead, she spent her time fighting her disease with a stubbornness and moxy that we all should emulate, and sought out ways to be the giver, not recipient, of kindness, goodwill, and inspiration.
From the outset of our conversation, Joanne’s fortitude and abhorrence for self-indulgence was apparent. “I’ve outlived three oncologists,” she said plainly–her unwavering stance against cancer was stunning and radical to me but not to her. Previous stigma of cancer never weighed Joanne down, as she recalled, “I never hid my surgery or my illness, even in the ’70s when most women didn’t talk about it.” Still, when I tried to relay the profundity and rarity of her resilience, she calmly responded, “I don’t think I’m special. It’s just me.”
Whether or not Joanne choose to admit it, she was unique in more ways than one. After participating in the Army of Women study, Joanne noticed Dr. Weidhaas’ Dutch name on the list of contributing researchers and saw an opening to connect. From then until her passing, she maintained a wonderful relationship with Dr. Weidhaas and called her new doctor-friend “delightfully informal” and the “Joanne Jr.” to her “Joanne Sr.”
Truly, Joanne Sr.’s relationship with cancer was as distinct as her relationship with the doctors who helped her treat it. Her third, final battle with breast cancer came after 34 years of remission and without any linkage to a known genetic factor, despite her overwhelming familial cancer history. Joanne’s mother, daughter, maternal aunt, and three nieces have all suffered from breast cancer, and yet, Joanne was negative for the BRCA genes and KRAS-variant. Perhaps most astonishing is that, barring her most recent treatment, Joanne never felt any side-effects and even took a trip to Disney during a round of chemotherapy in the 1970s.
Despite her remarkable history with this disease, Joanne Sr.’s generosity and selflessness stood out with even more boldness than her resilience. Even before we spoke on the phone, Joanne betrayed her inability to remain a patient or a victim, and rather imparted words of encouragement to me via email! Towards the end of the interview, I reminded Joanne Sr. that her selflessness and insistence to think of others first, especially in the midst of such a terrible disease, is a supremely rare. Her closing notes echoed the sentiments in her introductory email to me, “I think that someone like me has an obligation to myself and to other people to help in any way that I can. No man is an island [and] it’s not terribly generous of me… If I can help Joanne Jr. in any way I’m delighted.”
Joanne Sr.’s compassion for other members of the MiraKind community, and cancer survivors at large, is an example for us all to follow. She never ceased encouraging friends and family to continue getting breast exams and advocate for themselves in the doctor’s office; she explained that a radiologist’s refusal to screen her daughter properly in November 2003 led to the same daughter’s breast cancer diagnosis in June 2004. I realize that to Joanne Sr. my final question, “would you encourage others to get tested for the KRAS-variant,” must have sounded redundant and unnecessary. She responded a bit incredulously, “Of course!” As she said, “I have two choices: I can keep living or I can curl up in a corner. To me, [the latter] is not a choice.” Joanne Sr. will be greatly missed by all who knew her.