Cancer takes Grandmother, Verna and Edna

My Mom’s family in 1900
Gust, Erik, Emma, Thea and Ezra

My grandmother Emma Sophia Holmlund was only 54 years old when she died of cancer in 1909.  Although my Mom was 17 years old, as was the custom in those days, she was not privy to the details of her Mother’s death. She did say she knew it had something to do with a problem with her breasts. We all agree she died of  breast cancer.


Verna – picture taken in 1942 or 1943

My sister Verna was diagnosed with the disease in 1952.  She was pregnant with her daughter Kathryn Dale  when she started having problems raising her right arm.  It was after “Kate” was born that she started radiation treatments but the cancer had advanced to her lymph nodes and she died in March 1953.

I had no idea about Edna’s battle with cancer at the time of her death in 1977.   I asked her daughter, Susan, to tell me what she remembered and she has written the details. I know it was hard for Susan to write about her Mom’s cancer.  However she said it wouldn’t be complete without writing about the abuse her Mom had suffered as well.

Susan wrote:

Edna and her daughter Susan

About My Mom

The first I found out about her cancer was sometime in the fall about three years before she died.  Aunt Margie and Aunt Ruth had come for a visit, it could have been Thanksgiving weekend.  We had dinner and a few drinks and later in the evening she pulled us all into her bedroom, saying. “I want you to see what you guys think about this”.  With that she pulled up her shirt and bra and we were facing a breast that was enlarged and the nipple was sunken in. She informed us what she thought.  The three of us were speechless. I think it was Ruth who finally sputtered out – HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON AND HAVE YOU SEEN A DOCTOR? The answer was – Oh about a year or so and no I haven’t. The Aunts made her promise to see a doctor immediately.  Which she did, although I believe they had to call her several times insisting.  They talked a lot about Verna (who had died from breast cancer) that night.  Sometimes I wonder. if they had not been there, would she have ever told me, at least at that time.

Almost immediately she was diagnosed with cancer and the breast removed.  She began radiation therapy.  However by then the cancer had spread to the lymph glands and things did not look good.

I have to admit that I was very surprised that she had let it go that long, as ever since I remember, she watched her breasts, did self exams and taught me how, and I was always reminded by her of what happened to Verna.  Once she even found a small node on her other breast and went to the doctor right away and the tests were negative.

She made somewhat of a recovery and seemed to be doing well for the next year.  Then she started to complain about back pain.  Have you seen our doctor about this – yes she said.  Me: well? Oh “she says its just arthritis”. Me:She who? oh my new doctor.  So I arrange to go with her to her next appointment and discover Mom did not even tell the doctor abour her cancer.  I ask this doctor: – How could you not notice my Mom is missing a breast?  Me: How could you diagnose arthritis without any exams.  I told her we won’t be back and made Mom leave.

Back to the family doctor we go and after tests it was determined that the cancer had spread to her bones. They had to eliminate further chemo treatment as her blood work had to improve. It became apparent that it had been left so long that pain control was the only answer.

I was too young then (19) to make sense of any of this, years later, in a conversation with Aunt Margie, at my urging, she told me what she really thought of why Mom left it so long and too late.  Hard for her to say and hard for me to hear.  However, it made sense.  Marg said, “I think Edna committed suicide by cancer to get away from Paul Cruse.”  I agree.  Hard for me to say even now.  Following is an explanation of sorts.

I don’t know how much you know about her relationship with Paul Cruse, but it was as deadly as they come.  She met him when she had taken a part time job doing the census.  He could be very charming.  After a whirlwind romance she agreed to move us out to his acreaage and rented out her house in Calgary on a lease for a year.  I had just tuned 14.  His two boys moved in also.  Things went well for a few months in the fall but by then it had become apparent that not only did he not own the land, he was an alcoholic prone to violent rages.  But very, very good at sucking up and manipulation. He was very, very nice to those outside the family.

He convinced her to get bank loans to buy animals, put a 2nd mortgage on her house (which she lost in the end) and beat us all on a regular basis.  She went into selling real estate as she felt she would be able to earn more money.  Which she did and he spent.

During the next year, I was now 15, he started to come into my bedroom in the middle of the night on weekends.  He played in a band and would come home around 3 in the morning, I would wake up with him lying on top of me and licking my face and trying to grope me.  Mom would come to my rescue and the next day would tell me it was only because he was drunk.  I was very frightened to be anywhere alone with him.

Finally I told Mom that I was either going to run away and/or tell anyone who whould  listen what he was doing to me and her and his own children.  So even though we couldn’t move back into her house, she rented a place a few miles down the road and the two of us moved.

That lasted 4 months, by the end of September he had convinced her to move back.  I refused.  That’s how I ended up moving in with my boyfriend’s parents – thus how I ended up pregnant.

I have always thought it was a shame that I was so young, however I find comfort in the fact that I could have ended up raped and pregnant by Paul Cruse.  Small mercies.

I moved back into her home in Calgary in the summer of 1969 and by the end of the summer Mom moved in with me.  She had found out that he was having an affair with a 16 year old girl that he had met on a trail ride, at the time he would have been in his late 40’s he promptly married that girl.  

It’s kind of funny the way a person starts to remember things.  Paul had  2 sons and daughters, the oldest girl was only a year younger than me.  The other two under 6.  Hazel and I got to be friends, however thinking back, she never wanted to be alone with him either and when she came to visit, her mother always wanted to know that my Mom would be there.  Hazel ran away to Vancouver when she was 14 and urged me to go with her.  Never said why, but I found out later, she ended up having 4 children by 4 different men.  Says something about the code of silence way back then.

About a year later, the girl left him and surprise surprise he started courting my Mom again.  I don’t really understand why but she married him.  Maybe it was the times, maybe she didn’t want to be seen as a failure at relationships.  I remember how she was with Jack Carlin, the only other man I saw her in a relationship with.  She really did love him and I believe it broke her heart when he died, also to cancer I might add.  He was a good man.

So, enough of the back story.  About a half a year before she died, she showed up at my house beaten again with a few belongings and moved in.  Not only had he beaten her, he had ordered her not to see me or her grandchild ever again.  That she was not prepared to do. We went to great lengths to retrieve the rest of her things and refused to meet or speak to him again.

Now here we are a month or so before Christmas, she is now in the hospital and we know it’s the last Christmas.  I go in for a visit and she presents me with a list of presents she wanted to give to her family, small tokens to remember her by, her Mom and all her brother and sisters, people she loved.  I had asked her how much she wanted to spend and she told me she thought she had around $ 2,000.00 but she would check with her bank to see.  She sent me away and later on phoned me at work crying.  I go up to see her and found out Paul had found a blank check and stolen her money.   The bank refused to do anything about it because he was her husband,  oh – the good old days.  We revised the list and I bought what I could for her grandchildren and Paul’s 2 boys, who had stood behind her and tried their hardest to get her to leave

Now she summons a lawyer, changes her will and wants to figure out the best way for Paul not to have any say in her course of treatment and her funeral arrangements.  Lawyer says because he is still legally the next of kin –  check out of this hospital and into another and name your daughter when you are admitted.  An end run  – so to speak.  That way she will be notified first and if Susan makes the arrangements right away, he could change them, but that would be highly unlikely.  I remember her saying “good – I don’t want to end up in an urn on his fireplace. With him crying crocodile tears”.  So that’s what she did and it worked.

The day she died I visited her 3 times, first two visits went fine, although I could see she was really failing.  The last visit in the evening she was in and out of it and we didn’t really talk.  Towards the end of the visit.  She opens her eyes and looking behind me says in a strong really loud voice “So what is that asshole doing here?  I turn around and there he is.  She then orders him out and he goes, not a peep did he say.  Her last words to me were – “You don’t need to come back tonight and I love you”.  She died in the middle of the night.

Of course he challenges the will.  She didn’t have much.  But the biggest contention was he wanted to keep her piano, told a great story about how they had purchased it together…Now I had pictures of me as a 2 year old sitting on the piano and of her playing it, however a court date was set for this dispute. I had always been told that my father had purchased the piano shortly after my birth for the two of us.  So a couple of days before the hearing I am going through some of her papers again and doesn’t a receipt for the piano fall out on the floor.  May 9th, 1952.  Sent copy to his lawyer, A day later get a call from the Sherriff – when can we deliver the piano.  I had never seen this receipt before and it just came out of the blue.  The fluttering hand of God, maybe.

So that’s her battle with cancer or is it a story about abuse, or both.  I don’t know.  Margie said that Mom hung on as long as she could but maybe thought she could never escape him.

Sorry this is so long but I couldn’t do the cancer as a stand alone.”

To date there has been no cancer in my family since 1977.  I, for one, have been diligent in eating a healthy diet, exercising and having annual mammograms.  I also encourage every woman I know to  do the same.



3 Comments, RSS

  1. Colleen O'Shea

    Thanks, Susan, for telling this story. It must have been hard to write, and much, much harder to live through.

    Love your cousin,


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