For the Cruze family, cancer has been a constant presence. Yet, they have persevered and flourished. They continue to honor and give thanks for the family matriarch, Reita Cruze, who beat cancer after a radical surgery and harsh radiation treatments that began in the flooded city of New Orleans more than 45 years ago.
Cruze and her husband have lived on Mercer Island in a home they built since 1975. They will be welcoming much of their large extended family here over the Memorial Day weekend, to swath themselves in pink to run, walk and perhaps dance in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
Cruze, now 86, is a grandmother of 16 and great-grandmother of five. When asked to tell the story of her diagnosis of breast cancer more than four decades ago, Cruze gives the listener the barest of facts. She does not linger on the details, the pain or the fear that came with her ordeal. Instead, she smiles as if it is not a big deal. Her story is framed by her positive and no-nonsense approach to her life.
Yet make no mistake, Reita Cruze is a cancer survivor in the purest sense of the word.
It all began on a humid late summer day in the city of New Orleans in 1965. Cruze, then 41, was a recent transplant to the city where the family had moved for Deane Cruze’s job with Boeing. The mother of five found a suspicious lump under her arm. Within the next few days, her life and that of her family would change abruptly.
Cruze was born as Catherine Margaret Rae in Inverness, Scotland, in 1924. Her father worked for the railroad and her grandfather was a sheep farmer. She was nicknamed Reita to distinguish her from a cousin with a similar name. She came to the United States and Seattle via Canada and Spokane in 1950. She worked as a shorthand typist and soon met her future husband, Deane Cruze, when each was on a date with someone else.
He saw her again from afar at a dance. He waited a bit to talk with her, having a beer before walking over to where she was. She told him in no uncertain terms that she was not going to talk to him with that ‘beer breath.’ He went off to find something to freshen up.
It did the trick. They married in 1952 and began a family, and within six years had five children: Pam, who was born when her father was still in the military stationed at Sand Point in Seattle; a son, Randy; then twin sons, Kerry and Kevin; and a daughter, Laurie.
Cruze’s own mother came from Scotland to visit. She herself suffered from breast cancer. But she spoke little about it. The extent and seriousness of her illness was not known until she died from it many years later.
The family moved often in those early years as Deane Cruze worked for Boeing on projects such as the Minuteman Missile and the Saturn Rocket program. It was the missile project that brought them to New Orleans in the early 1960s. There the family lived in an upstairs apartment. In late summer of 1965, Cruze reached to touch what she thought was a mosquito bite under her left arm. She felt a lump.
She made a doctor’s appointment for the next Friday. There she was immediately scheduled for surgery on the following Monday.
Accompanied by her husband to the hospital, she went into surgery without knowing her life would irrevocably change in just a few hours.
Partway through the long surgery, the two Harvard-trained surgeons left the operating room together to talk to Deane Cruze. They had a form for him to sign. They told him that the lump they found was cancerous and dangerous. They told him that they needed to remove his wife’s entire breast with the surrounding muscle and tissue.
They gave him no time to think or consider it. Shaken and shocked, he signed the form.
Neither he nor his wife had any idea that such a radical surgery could occur.
He was left to tell her what happened when she awoke.
Their daughter, Laurie Knott, remembers the story of what happened then.
“When Dad told her what had happened and that they had removed her breast, she asked him, ‘Does it matter to you?’ And he said, no, of course not. And that was that.”
The doctors were uncertain about her long-term prognosis. They told her she might live just six months.
Deane Cruze feared for the worst.
“My first thought was, what would I do without her?” he said. “And then, what about the children?”
She returned home to begin an extensive period of healing before she could begin cobalt radiation treatments. The large bandages on her chest and under her arm needed to be changed every day or two, and she was to go to the doctor to have it done.
But a few days later, Hurricane Betsy slammed into New Orleans on the evening of Sept. 9, 1965, with winds reported between 110 and 140 mph.
Betsy drove a storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Levees along Florida Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward and on both sides of the Industrial Canal failed.
The flood water reached the eaves of houses in some places and covered some one-story roofs in the Lower Ninth Ward. Some residents drowned in their attics trying to escape the rising waters. In all, 76 people died.
The streets and homes in much of Gentilly, the neighborhood where the Cruze family lived near the Lower Ninth Ward, were inundated by saltwater.
Fortunately, the family lived on an upper floor of an apartment building. The family filled two bathtubs with fresh water. Soon there were extra people who came to the higher floor and ended up staying with the family. Without electricity or safe running water, Cruze, still in her bandages, cooked for 11 people for several days on a two-burner Coleman camp stove — a fact related by her husband, not her.
While the streets were still flooded, Army personnel were dispatched via a duck transport boat into the flooded neighborhoods after the storm to bring food and water to stranded residents. They also took Cruze to the doctor and back several times, helping her through a window on and off the boat.
As the water receded and the city was still in ruins, her husband took her each day for treatments for six weeks.
With her fair skin, Cruze was burned by the cobalt radiation. She doesn’t remember having anything to take for the pain. She does remember all these years later that she would be ravenous after the treatment, thinking only of an oyster Po’Boy sandwich that her husband would have for her when it was over.
Their daughter, Knott, was 8 when her mother was ill. She did not know that her mother had cancer or that she had been given just a few months to live. But she knew that her mother was sick and something was very wrong.
“I remember that my mother would be very weak and sick after her treatments,” she said. “My father would carry her up the stairs to our apartment afterward.”
Almost a secret
The family later returned to Seattle, where Cruze followed up with cancer physicians.
After the wounds healed, the radiation was completed, and the months and then years passed, Cruze thought she had been cured. She never regained full movement in her left arm, her daughter notes, but did not complain.
Cruze herself waves off any notion that the treatment or the diagnosis was anything to dwell on.
There was simply too much to do to spend any time worrying about herself, she said. There were children, a house to take care of. A life to live.
“Dad says she never complained, cried or talked about it after that,” Knott said. “Back in those days, cancer was not something to be talked about,” she continued, “it was almost like a secret.
“I really don’t remember my Mom talking about breast cancer at all until my sister and I reached the age where my Mom thought we needed to go for a mammogram,” she explained. “Then we started asking more questions and became more aware of our family history and how serious my mom’s diagnosis had been.”
Knott and her sister found out that their grandmother had died from breast cancer nearly 10 years earlier. They knew she was ill, but not the cause.
Finally, times had changed. New attitudes about cancer brought the disease out into the open.
“Around the same time that we were becoming more aware, the Susan G. Komen foundation was becoming much more visible in the late 1980s and 90s. I truly believe that Komen is responsible for breast cancer coming out of the closet, or at least my mom’s coming out,” she said.
An inherited gene
Knott, who lives in Easton, Wash., was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 when she was 49. She had faithfully had a mammogram each year.
A genetic test taken at that time revealed that she had the gene mutation BRC1 — an inherited gene known to greatly increase the risk for breast and other cancers for both women and men. Knott urged other family members, including her mother, to be tested. Cruze and others have the gene, but not all of them have breast cancer.
Knott’s older sister, Pam, has a rare blood cancer, a brother has tested positive for the gene, and there are members of the younger generation who carry the gene and its attendant risks as well.
Now four years since her own surgery and treatment, Knott wonders how her mother got through her own ordeal without anyone to talk to. She knows she talked to her father, of course, but no women that she knows of. She cannot imagine going through all of this on her own.
She herself volunteers for awareness and research. She and other family members, including her husband and her father, joined in the Komen Race for the Cure at least a dozen years ago, long before her own diagnosis. She also volunteers with an organization that counsels other women with breast cancer.
Race to celebrate
This coming week, Cruze and her husband are looking forward to the Komen event. People are coming in from all over.
The house is ready for extra people, and most of the pink shirts have arrived. And for the first time, Cruze will join the parade of the survivors at the event. Knott will push her in a wheelchair because of a bum knee, not cancer. She seems surprised at herself that she agreed to such a thing.
Her husband is immensely proud and pleased.
“We have been very lucky in our lives,” Deane Cruze said. “We have nothing to complain about.”
For more information on the upcoming Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, see the ‘Pink’ pages in this issue or go to www.komenpugetsound.org.