Dawn Addison Burnham’s first encounter with breast cancer was with her mother-in-law, who was diagnosed more than 30 years ago.
When she first noticed a lump, Ann Oakes Burnham went to her family doctor, but was told not to worry about it.
A year later, after losing a good amount of weight on a diet, Oakes Burnham noticed that the lump had grown. She saw a breast surgeon and was scheduled for a radical mastectomy within days.
The surgeon came into Oakes Burnham’s hospital room when Addison Burnham brought her elementary school-age daughters to visit their grandmother.
“The surgeon said, ‘I’d like to talk to you,’ and I thought he meant me, but he wanted to talk to my daughters,” Addison Burnham, a native of Essex, said. “It still brings tears to my eyes when I think of that moment.
“He told them their grandmother had a lump in her breast and he wished that she had come to see him sooner,” she said. “But he told the girls that he hoped it was treated soon enough for their grandmother to see them graduate from school, get married and have children.”
Her mother-in-law, who was part of the third generation of women in her family to have breast cancer, went through several rounds of chemotherapy.
“Her drive for life was amazing,” Addison Burnham said. “She had sheep and made sweaters for the family from yarn she spun, dyed and knitted. She and her husband did the Great Race several times during and after her chemo. It was a race for old cars going from the East Coast to the West Coast.”
But in December 1994, a CT scan showed that the cancer “had metastasized too far,” said Addison Burnham, who became her mother-in-law’s 24/7 caregiver.
“During her last months, Ann said, ‘I never realized how many friends I had until I was dying,’” Addison Burnham said. “This has stuck with me for 25 years.”
In fact, Oakes Burnham was still knitting four days before she died on Oct. 1, 1995, Addison Burnham said.
Addison Burnham’s paternal grandfather also had breast cancer.
“When he was diagnosed, only 1 in 100 men survived. He was the one,” she said. “But he had two sons, and Ann had three sons. Thirty years ago, there was no research on whether men could pass this on to their children.
“The fact that breast cancer is in both sides of my daughters’ family is what weighs heavy on my heart,” she said.
Addison Burnham soon became active in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life in Gloucester. Through her participation, she and her daughters are now part of a study, responding to a survey every few years about their health, diet, level of exercise and overall well-being.
Through her church, St. John the Baptist in Essex, Addison Burnham became close friends with Jane Shaw, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, the same year Oakes Burnham died.
“(Shaw) was a wonderful woman who couldn’t do enough to help others,” Addison Burnham said.
“One day, Jane said she was going to shave her head because she felt guilty when she went to breast cancer support groups,” Addison Burnham said. “She had a full head of hair because she did not have chemo, while many of the women were bald.”
In June 2012, Addison Burnham joined Shaw and her husband, Ray Shaw, at the Kid’s Cancer Buzz-Off at Gillette Stadium, where participants shave their heads to raise money for Boston Children’s Hospital.
“Jane and I had a friend spray our heads hot pink the night before, but we never thought about it getting to our scalps,” Addison Burnham said. “For almost a week, we had bright pink bald heads.”
The three friends were active supporters of fundraisers for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. In 2013, they created the Cape Ann Shave to Save, raising more than $2,000 at their first event.
“The summer of 2017, Jane was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, but this did not slow her down,” Addison Burnham said. “Jane was one of those people who never forgot a birthday or anniversary. She sent cards of encouragement to people who were ill, recovering or just feeling down.
“She was truly a light of faith, strength and love,” Addison Burnham said. “Then COVID-19 hit. Jane stayed home except for doctor’s appointments. She lost her battle on June 15.”
Addison Burnham and Ray Shaw changed the name of the fundraiser to the Jane G. Shaw Shave to Save. This past August, the event raised more than $15,000 for St. Jude in her memory.
“The spirit of these two women remain with me. They continued to live their lives,” Addison Burnham said.
“They taught me how important it is to reach out and stay connected to the people in my life. That a simple card or a batch of cookies can change someone’s week. I was blessed to have had Ann and Jane in my life.”
For more information or to donate to the local fundraiser, visit fundraising.stjude.org/JaneGshave.