Family ravaged by cancer shares its story

Jennifer Jennings
(Australian Associated Press)


In one year Christine Keepence’s mother, father and sister were all dying of cancer under the same roof.

Such was the devastating impact of the BRCA2 gene on her family.

Ms Keepence shared her remarkable experiences with the disease at an ovarian cancer breakfast at Parliament House on Tuesday.

She asked the audience who of them had done their family tree.

“How much fun can that be. Diving into the past and learning about your heritage, relations and hidden skeletons and maybe dual-citizenships,” she joked to the MPs and senators present.

“Well there was a time when that was fun. Now instead of doing a family tree, I’ve had to do a family cancer tree.”

Ms Keepence’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50, her father suffered liver cancer and her little sister Elisha Neave died of ovarian cancer at 36.

“In one horrible year actually my mother, my father and my sister were all dying of cancer under the same roof,” she told the politicians.

“My nephew Jack he was living in that house, 11 years of age at that time, and didn’t know anything else in his short life but living with cancer.”

Ms Keepence herself was diagnosed with cancer on her 50th birthday, but unlike Elisha – who was keen for a second child – she and her sister Veronica had both breasts removed and hysterectomies.

“Suffice to say the BRCA2 gene is rather rampant in our lineage,” she said.

Elisha’s son Jack told the audience said there was a 75 per cent chance his mother would die in under two years, but she beat that by months.

“I think she held on three more months just for me,” he said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt used the breakfast to announce $3 million for a program to test if relatives of those who have suffered ovarian cancer have a higher risk themselves.

Under the Traceback program at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Australian women diagnosed before 2013 and their families will be offered genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

“It’s about giving people that sense of relief or opportunity to take action,” Mr Hunt said.

Labor leader Bill Shorten, whose mother dealt with cancer, said he’d been “woken” up to the need for genetic testing.

“I’m going to go back and just make sure I’m doing the tracing which needs to be done,’ he said.

Mr Shorten announced a future Labor government would contribute $12 million for greater research and clinical trials.

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