(photo: Asvitt Photography)
“I have had both sides of the story, the one that you don’t tell anyone and it gets worse and then when you find out there is no hope and then the one where if you do what you are supposed to do there is hope.”
It is that time of the season when many teams raise awareness and funds in support of breast cancer through their “Pink in the Rink” events. Every community has been impacted by the disease and these events remind us all of the importance of early detection in the fight against breast cancer. It is hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched in some way, whether it be family or friends.
Hockey players are no exception. For some, it hits closer to home than for others. For Stockton Thunder defenseman Mario Larocque, the disease stole his grandmother from him at an early age and then struck again with his mother-in-law, who, because she caught it early on, was able to fight it and is now cancer free. His personal story is a gentle reminder for vigilance despite how far we have come in identifying and treating breast cancer.
“My grandmother was a big part of my childhood and we had a special connection so for me to see what she had to go through and her not telling anyone for whatever reason, it was really hard because I know she suffered.“
Larocque spent many a night at his grandmother Paula’s house. At first, the visits were the result of him and his brother getting into it during their family’s dinners out. He had a way of getting under his brother’s skin with his constant chirps and his parents finally reached the breaking point, sending Mario to his grandmother’s house while the rest of the family went out to dinner. “It ended up working out because I didn’t want to go (out to dinner),” said Larocque. “I wanted to stay with her. I would fall asleep to the radio with the Montreal Canadiens on and we would even arm wrestle together and stuff like that.”
Larocque’s grandmother had a secret she didn’t share with anyone. “She knew something was going on but she waited and waited. It started as a small lump but she waited and didn’t tell anyone,” recalls Larocque. He isn’t really sure why his grandmother never told anyone. When Mario asked his mother, she told him that she believed his grandmother was scared. She let her fear get in the way and the lump grew to the point where it could be ignored no longer. Mario was 12 years old at the time and didn’t know all the details of what she was going through but he remembers her battle with breast cancer like it was yesterday. Because she had waited so long, the cancer spread to her brain and bones and she couldn’t be saved.
“Towards the end I mean you know what is going on but I was young and you don’t realize as much. I remember she was laying down on the couch and…she was in pain, it was hard to watch. I wanted to be with her until the end and that is what I did.”
Larocque will never be able to ask his grandmother why she chose not to tell anyone, but he imagines that a certain part of her was anxious to move on. His grandpa had passed at a young age and he thinks that she may have missed him too much and believed that he was waiting for her. “I don’t know but that was the story that I came up with, that she was ready to make the jump.”
For Larocque’s mother-in-law, the outcome would be different. Certainly the knowledge and technology has grown since the time that Mario’s grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, but one of the key factors for his wife’s mother was catching the cancer early on. She was diagnosed in 2010, when she was about 55, but she had been vigilant about getting a yearly mammogram.
“One year everything was fine but the next they found something going on. The fact that she went and took the exam and they realized but it was still in the early stage…they were able to take care of it. It ended up being a better result this time around.”
After having a full mastectomy and undergoing treatment Mario’s mother-in-law is cancer free 5 years later. She also took the genetic tests to see if cancer was something that ran in the family. Genetic testing for a mutation of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene can help determine whether a person is at an increased risk for developing breast or ovarian cancer. If these two genes show up in testing with a mutation present, it may help a person manage their cancer risk. For Mario’s family, the tests revealed some good news; that there were no mutations present and that her cancer did not have a genetic link.
Despite Larocque’s long career in hockey, Thunder Goes Pink was his first Pink in the Rink event. He quickly followed it up with playing on pink ice in Utah and then again for the weekend matchup with the Idaho Steelheads. He believes these events are important because they help raise awareness and get people thinking. Making a personal connection is also important in the fight against cancer, which is why he felt it was important to share his own story.
“There are many different kinds of cancer and this is the one that touched my family. Any time you have the opportunity to talk about an experience that you’ve had and what can be done and alert people. It helps them make sure they know what is going on.”
Mario’s story has already made an impact. My own mom passed away from breast cancer when I was 15 and her sister had breast cancer shortly after my mom was diagnosed with the disease. It’s time for me to be proactive and get the genetic tests. It’s one more thing I can do to keep myself informed. Thank you for opening up and sharing your life with me and our readers, Mario. Know that you’ve already made a difference.