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How a Grandmother—Gone Too Soon from Cancer—Helped Future Patients through Her Passion for Genealogy

Jan 10, 2022 8:00 AM

Happy New Year! My colleague, Jacqueline Brakey, has graciously agreed to write this month’s message. In her message, she shares her reason for working at Huntsman Cancer Foundation. Thank you, Jackie. And thank you to all who share in Jackie’s kind heart and words.

Susan Sheehan
President and COO
Huntsman Cancer Foundation

By Jacqueline Brakey
Director of Integrated Communications
Huntsman Cancer Foundation

My grandmother, Jean Funkhouser, was a vibrant, outgoing woman. Outside of her family, her life’s passion was family history. From the time my mother was young, my grandma was fascinated with her ancestors and worked to create connections with them through genealogy and family history. She spent most of her days peering at microfiche and other documents to perhaps discover a birth record in a village in faraway Scotland that might link to her own family. Those familial connections across time were her life’s work.

I think about her often working at Huntsman Cancer Foundation. When I think about being passionate about what I do and working to fund vital cancer research, she is my guiding star.

In the early spring of 1996, at the age of 73, my grandmother collapsed. After an original misdiagnosis, we received the dreadful news that she had brain cancer. And so, our family did what many families do in a similar situation. We rallied the best we could. Grandma received radiation—the only possible treatment option for her cancer at that time—to shrink and slow down the tumor’s progression. It didn’t work. Grandma was a very healthy person—she ate right, exercised every day, and tried to live life to the fullest. The day after her diagnosis, knowing her time would be short, she started eating cookies as well as carrot sticks. And she continued the best she could to embrace each day.

My family provided 24-hour care. The events of those few months are still etched in my mind. I can recall the sounds, the smells, the humorous moments, and the devastating moments too. I remember the quiet moments, after she couldn’t talk anymore, and I would just look into her expressive, beautiful eyes. She was tenacious and fought cancer with everything she had. Less than six months after her diagnosis, she passed away.

One year earlier, Jon and Karen Huntsman made their first gift to create a cancer center in Utah. It was an inflection point in the research and treatment of cancer in our region. The year 1996 proved to be a personal inflection point.

Today, Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is home to one of the most unique resources in the world that utilizes information from genealogies, demographic data, and medical records: the Utah Population Database. Family history records, including work by my grandma and many others, have been used to help discover genes responsible for many inherited forms of cancer. These discoveries allow doctors to diagnose cancer earlier and, in some cases, prevent it altogether.

To me, this is my grandma’s legacy. Cancer took her from our family much too soon. But her lifelong dedication to family history has helped advancements at HCI that are saving lives. She would love that.

I participate in employee giving at HCI and designate the funds I contribute to neurologic cancers in her honor because I know there is still so much work to be done. We all have a cancer story and have felt its impact on our lives. Grandma Funkhouser’s loss had a profound effect on my life. I can hear her Scottish brogue and her laughter still. I’m inspired by her passion for life and her “all in” perspective even in the face of adversity. I try to pursue each aspect of my life and work with the same dedication to a worthy cause and a life well-lived.

Susan Sheehan

President and COO, Huntsman Cancer Foundation