By Dwight Adams
Life Behind the Lens
Two generations of cancer pull a filmmaker’s family together
By Dwight Adams
Photographs by Dennie Eagleson
By January 2006, Julia Reichert had an intimate understanding of how cancer can wreak havoc on people's lives.
She and her partner, fellow filmmaker Steven Bognar, had just finished A Lion in the House, an emotionally charged and inspiring documentary that recorded the lives of five children diagnosed with lymphoma or leukemia. When they began the first of what would become more than 500 hours of filming at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in July 1997, less than a year had passed since Reichert‘s own daughter, Lela May Reichert-Klein, had completed her treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma at 17.
Three years ago, Bognar, Reichert, her daughter, film supporters and some of the care providers and family members portrayed in the film gathered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, to celebrate the eagerly awaited film’s completion and unveiling. But the celebrations were soon cut short as Reichert had to face cancer from a much different perspective: her own diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
She made the difficult decision to share her distressing news with friends and acquaintances before leaving the festival early to seek treatment. From that moment on, the family’s now multigenerational bout with cancer would have a profound and lasting influence on everyone involved.
“In some ways, I felt like me having cancer—even though it was terrible—was really good in our lives in a lot of different ways,” Reichert-Klein, now 30, said recently during an interview at the family home in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
“Our family got a lot closer … with everyone collaborating or cooperating on my care. And I don’t think I would have been able to deal with your sickness, your illness,” she said to her mother, “if I had not had to deal with my own.”
“When I was diagnosed,” Reichert, 62, said in response, “one of us … said the person who would know best how to take care of me would be you.”
According to Pierluigi Porcu, Reichert’s oncologist at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center’s James Cancer Hospital, in Columbus, there is a “growing awareness” of a familial link in some cancers, particularly as doctors take better patient histories which document more cases that are similar. For Reichert and her daughter, the connection to cancer runs even deeper—one of the aunts of Reichert-Klein’s father, Jim Klein, nearly died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2003.