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News / Health / Breast Cancer

Vancouver family needed connection to navigate grief during a time of increased isolation

Mother and daughter battled breast cancer in 2018; father died of lung cancer in May

By Wyatt Stayner, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 11, 2020, 5:14am

As a pandemic plays out around the globe, one Vancouver family has been navigating an intimate grief that’s required closeness during this time of increased isolation.

Vancouver’s Frazier family was profiled by The Columbian last year in a front page story about increased breast cancer mortality rates for Black women, who are about 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.

Della Frazier, 72, and her daughter Zsaneen Kennedy, 52, were both diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. Kennedy’s mother-in-law, Rosa Kennedy, was diagnosed in 2002 and has lost an aunt and cousins to the disease.

But this year, with both Frazier and Kennedy free of cancer, another tragedy struck the family. Frazier’s husband and Kennedy’s father, John Frazier, died in May from lung cancer.

Della Frazier said her husband battled multiple health problems. In 2002, he was given a 50-pound heart pump to keep with him. He carried it every day until he died. John Frazier grew up working in Portland shipyards, which his family believes might have contributed to his lung cancer.

“There was wear and tear on his body,” Della Frazier said of her husband. “He kept saying he was tired.”

Health disparities

“Weathering” is the public health term that describes how the stress of living in a racist society ravages the body over time.

According to a 2017 ProPublica story, a Black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to succumb to cervical cancer and 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.

Tomi Akinyemiju, an associate professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., told The Columbian last year that these are factors Black people don’t have much control over.

“As a Black person in the U.S., you are exposed to this daily, chronic stressor, having an impact on your biology. There’s not really a lot you can do to address that,” Akinyemiju said.

Staying close-knit

Despite the pandemic, the Fraziers have continued to gather for monthly family dinners. When adversity strikes, they say, the family grows closer.

It was at one of those Sunday dinners that Kennedy told her family about her breast cancer diagnosis. Now the family is using the dinners to stay connected and help each other through the loss of John Frazier.

“This family loves to eat and is always looking for a reason to come together,” Della Frazier said.

Since John Frazier died, Della Frazier has been living alone in Vancouver. That’s made connection to family even more important for her.

“When the family comes around, I’m better,” Della Frazier said.

Kennedy said checking on her mother and siblings over the past few months has made her feel more whole. She needs that connection and purpose to help her work through the grief of her father’s death.

“It’s a source of healing for me,” Kennedy said. “We all have a part of Dad in us. He’s there.”

Columbian staff writer