Editor's Notebook: Los Altos family battles cancer, celebrates life

Bruce Barton/Town Crier
Jeanne and Duncan MacVicar and their daughter, Bryn MacVicar Pennington, are united in their fight against cancer.

For more than a dozen years, the MacVicar family of Los Altos has put their hearts and souls into organizing and participating in the annual Relay For Life.

Fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, the 24-hour events are more importantly therapeutic exercises for those suffering with cancer and their families. Although reflective of those lost, Relays are primarily celebrations of life and survival.

The MacVicars’ dedication stems from their own experiences with cancer. Jeanne, who played a major role in arranging the enormously successful inaugural Los Altos Relay For Life in 2004, is a breast cancer survivor of 33 years. Daughter Bryn MacVicar Pennington is four years in recovery from her own bout with a rare cancer. A past Relay participant, Bryn is now involved in Cycle for Survival, an annual campaign funding rare-cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

All along, the MacVicar patriarch, Duncan, has been very active in and supportive of the Relays.

Until recently, Duncan had been contributing to this year’s Relay. He was in charge of raising money for scholarships. The upcoming Silicon Valley North Relay For Life, a combination of the Los Altos, Mountain View and Sunnyvale Relays, is scheduled 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday at Cuesta Park in Mountain View.

Although the MacVicars have been fixtures at past local Relays, you won’t find them at the event this weekend. That’s because Duncan will be recovering from surgery at Stanford – surgery to treat a rare form of cancer that was just recently discovered.

He was diagnosed last month with mucosal melanoma. It accounts for less than 1 percent of all melanomas, or skin cancers. Instead of on the skin, the cancer forms on the interior tissue, in this case, in his throat. A routine physical with his primary care doctor led to the April 27 diagnosis.

“Thirty-three years ago, I had breast cancer. Now we have two rares (cancers) in the family,” Jeanne said. “I have a hard time believing it happened to all three of us. I’m also feeling really fortunate (Duncan’s cancer) was accidentally, randomly found.”

Jeanne said she created luminaria for this weekend’s Relay – hand-drawn paper bags with candles in them – with their names and the years each was diagnosed. Luminaria are staples of the annual Relays, lining the track as glowing reminders of those who have fallen victim to a baffling and insidious disease that afflicts 4 in 10 people nationwide.

Even with the diagnosis, Duncan, Jeanne and Bryn, who visited the Town Crier last week, remain upbeat. They made it clear they are fighting Duncan’s cancer together. Jeanne recalled a quote from another survivor: “My family got cancer, but I got the symptoms.”

“It’s an emotional thing for me,” Duncan said.

He received 295 visits in two days to his CaringBridge website (caringbridge.org), where users share stories and resources, post updates and fundraise.

Jeanne pointed to the importance of supporting the American Cancer Society. Although millions from the federal government and other sources pour into researching well-known cancers, ACS also allocates funds to rare-cancer research. There’s also a “comfort level” Relays provide that proves essential for survivors, Jeanne said, adding, “You don’t realize how much strength they give you.”

“I’m sorry I can’t go to Relay,” Duncan said. “You walk onto the track and it’s a very empowering thing to do. I encourage all survivors out there in the community to go.”

In addition to encouraging people not to postpone their annual checkups, Jeanne offered this food for thought: “I think it would be wonderful for everyone who wants to do something to perform a random act of kindness for someone else. There’s a lot of negativity associated with cancer. Put something positive out into the universe.”

For more information on this weekend’s Relay For Life event, visit relay.acsevents.org.

Bruce Barton is editor-in-chief of the Town Crier.

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