Russell Rich, whose gritty, darkly comic memoir of her protracted battle with
breast cancer became a beacon for other patients, died of the disease on
Tuesday. She was 56, and against all predictions had lived with cancer for
nearly a quarter-century.
The death was confirmed by a friend, Emma Sweeney.
In “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — and Back,” published in 1999, Ms. Rich
chronicles finding a lump in her breast in 1988, when she was 32. An editor at
GQ magazine at the time, she had ended her marriage just three weeks earlier.
She goes on to chart her odyssey through a parallel universe she calls
Cancerland, where she encounters insensitive doctors (one dropped her, calling
her difficult), obtuse psychotherapists (one told her that her health problems
were rooted in childhood), unsupportive support groups (one was run by someone
with a mail-order divinity degree) and even less supportive bosses (one,
apparently discomforted by Ms. Rich’s cancer, fired her).
She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, and the cancer seemed to
remit. But as her book recounts, it returned with a vengeance in 1993, just
after she had begun a job at Allure magazine.
This time the cancer was Stage 4 — the most advanced stage possible. It spread
to her spine, breaking her bones and leaving her temporarily paralyzed. She was
told she would live a year or two at most.
Over time, Ms. Rich underwent a number of additional treatments, including more
chemotherapy and radiation, hormone therapy and, in 1995, a bone-marrow
transplant. In the book, she describes the exquisite irony of working at Allure,
with its emphasis on the feminine ideal, while being bald for long periods.
The treatments bought her more time. As Ms. Rich recounted, they also gave her
the courage to quit editing and become a writer.
“The Red Devil” received wide attention in the news media and inspired an
outpouring of support from fellow cancer patients. Reviewers praised the book’s
unsentimental voice and unflinching candor.
Ms. Rich’s pugnacious engagement with her illness even gave her the fortitude,
she said, to move to India for a year to learn Hindi. Her sojourn there, begun
in 2001, is recounted in a second memoir, “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in
Another Language,” published in 2009.
Though there was no oncologist around for hundreds of miles, she wrote, her
cancer was largely manageable during her time there.
Ms. Rich wrote about her experience with cancer, and her life in India, in
first-person articles in The New York Times and elsewhere.
“Here, you live among outlaws, your body’s own cells,” she wrote in an essay in
O: The Oprah Magazine in June 2010. “Whole phalanxes of them turn mutinous,
become silent killers. This is a country that’s both narrow and vast, where
geography bends at the edges and landmarks vanish like Cheshire cats. ‘Oh, we
don’t use that drug anymore,’ a doctor will say, five minutes after the drug was
invented. So you have to become your own cartographer, make your own way.”
Katherine Russell Rich, known as Kathy, was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on Nov. 17,
1955. She earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Syracuse
Ms. Rich’s marriage to Diego Olivé ended in divorce. Survivors include a
brother, Stuart P. Rich Jr., and a sister, Lucy Harrison.
In the Oprah Magazine essay, Ms. Rich explored her decision to forsake editing
for freelance writing. “When I was told I was going to die, I was shredded to
realize I hadn’t made any real difference,” she wrote. She added, “The life of a
writer was uncertain, but as a writer, it seemed, I might leave a mark.”
The most significant advance in
the understanding of breast cancer for a decade was announced last night with
the identification of a new group of common genetic markers for the disease.
Scientists have discovered four
genes which, if faulty, can increase a woman's chance of developing breast
cancer - by up to 60% in the case of two of the genes. This helps explain why
women with a close relative with breast cancer are twice as likely to develop
the disease, and offers the hope of a test in the near future. The scientists
also believe the techniques used will help them unravel other cancers.
Karol Sikora, a leading cancer specialist, said of the studies published online
in Nature and Nature Genetics last night: "This set of incredible papers points
to the future understanding [of] the genetics of cancer."
It is the most significant discovery in the field since the 1990s, when
scientists identified two rare genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, which make carriers
likely to develop breast cancer. An international coalition of researchers led
by Cancer Research UK at Cambridge University has proved the theory that
geneticists have been working on ever since: that most familial patterns of
breast cancer can be explained by myriad smaller genetic effects.
Breast cancer is twice as common in those who have a close relative who develops
it due to a fault in a gene, although the presence of a faulty gene does not
mean that cancer will definitely occur.
The scientists trawled large parts of the genome in 800 people. They identified
11,000 "tags", or blocks of DNA which point to genes, which were more common in
women with breast cancer and studied them in 8,000 more women. In the final
process, which involved 40,000 women, they narrowed the search down to five tags
which were significantly more common among women with breast cancer than those
without. The tags pointed them to four genes which they believe are responsible
for the increased breast cancer risk among the patients studied. Scientists
expect that they will find a fifth.
Two of the genes identified, FGFR2 and TNRC9, are thought to increase the risk
of breast cancer by about 20% in women who carry one faulty copy of a gene and
by between 40% and 60% in those who carry two faulty copies. The lifetime risk
for women with two faulty copies in either of these two genes would rise from
one in 11 to around one in six or seven. The other two genes increase risk by
10% if there is one fault.
A maximum 10% of breast cancers have a genetic element, and the genes scientists
know about so far account for 25% of these. The genes identified today account
for a further 4% and are responsible for only a small number of breast cancers -
up to 179 of the 44,000 diagnosed every year.
The ultimate aim is genetic screening that would band women according to risk.
But scientists warn this could create an army of "worried well". They stress
that the findings do not merit genetic testing immediately.
The findings do, however, hint at a different cause of familial breast cancers.
Three of the new genes are involved in the control of cell growth or cell
signalling, mechanisms which have never been linked to breast cancer before.
The author of the study, Douglas Easton, director of Cancer Research UK's
Genetic Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge, said: "We're very excited by these
results because the regions we identified don't contain previously known
inherited cancer genes. This opens the door to new research directions." The
techniques used are similar to those which helped identify the genes for obesity