My Sister's Cancer
- Created on October 20th, 2006
Like so many sisters, my sister and I are close – and not close. Nearly seven years separate us, so growing up we had different friends; different interests and very different personalities. I’m outgoing and chatty. She is quiet, private – reserved.
But we are sisters. We share parents, a common background and enough interests to make our time together enjoyable. We are the only two children of our parents and we are each the mother of two daughters.
We are a fortunate and healthy family. Even before the turbulent sixties, my sister was a college graduate and a successful health care professional who was married to a pharmacist. I skipped college in favor of marriage and by the early sixties, we were both married and each the parent of small girls. Our timing was perfect. We were able to take advantage of changing times and have been happy beneficiaries of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. My sister and I and our children have had better educations and better health care than most people of color in earlier generations.
Our daughters grew up with only the usual childhood ills and issues, and my sister and I sped through our twenties, thirties, forties and into our fifties in excellent health. We were each divorced and I remarried while she remained single, independent, now–retired and always busy. Other than the usual colds and the general problems of aging – thinning hair, thickening waists and failing eyes – we’ve remained healthy – with good reason. We’ve always believed in aggressive, preventative health care. We go to the dentist regularly and have annual physicals; we eat well and get reasonable rest. And we have regular mammograms.
I’m guilty of spotty self–exam, but my sister was more diligent. About fifteen years ago her self–exams and several mammograms identified what seemed to be a cyst, but eventually a sharp nighttime pain led her to insist on the biopsy that revealed metastasized breast cancer. Her mastectomy was performed within 48–hours. I believe her dedicated attention to her health and awareness of the changes in her body saved her life.
Despite her knowledge, strength and quick action, in our female–dominated family my sister’s breast cancer at 56 was a shock. We’d never had to deal with a serious illness before and when she got breast cancer, I did. I did – and our four daughters did too. What had happened to one of us, happened to us all. We experienced short–term but paralyzing group shock.
My sister has lived in the same community for most of her life, so there were many friends around to help and support her, but I knew this was still something she was experiencing alone. I suspect everyone with a life–threatening illness feels that way. No matter how much we care, it isn’t happening to us.
Of course, I was there too, traveling from my Massachusetts home to Ohio to be there in her post–surgery days. I read everything I could find about breast cancer and breast cancer patients.
I could sense her isolation and felt I was running around outside her invisible cage, trying to find a way inside so I could rescue her. Because she wasn’t used to asking for or needing help, I remember finding it difficult to feel useful. I’d show up in her bedroom to help her dress to find her struggling into her clothes on her own. I believe she was trying to get her life back as quickly as she could, and for her independence was her best evidence of wholeness.
No, my sister and I didn’t have a lot of deep, meaningful conversations. We were both too frightened for that. I know she believed she would die and never get to know her unborn grandchildren. I feared she die too and would lie awake at night and worry. I just couldn’t imagine it. She was my big sister. I always believed she was smarter and more talented than I could ever hope to be – and certainly indestructible in that way only big brothers and sisters can be. There was no way she could die and I’d still be alive.
And she didn’t die. Her determination and long weeks of chemotherapy – while she continued to work – took away the cancer and left her stronger and still standing a decade and a half, three grandchildren and two step–grandchildren later.
Her breast cancer is such a non–topic in our family that when I told her I was joining the Sister Study and needed to know when she had breast cancer neither of us could quite remember when it all happened. We are fortunate that cancer hasn’t dominated either of our lives since she was diagnosed and that that frightening time has grown fuzzy in our minds. Our four daughters, now in their forties are all fine too. So far.
Too many families aren’t as lucky as my family has been. And that is why I joined the Sister Study: to help bring attention to this death–causing, family–destroying illness. The mother of a young woman who worked for me died two years after her diagnosis because her husband “didn’t want anybody cuttin’ on her.” Her death was a tragedy and probably could have been avoided.
We must educate ourselves and others. We must learn and teach; and we must help all men and women–but especially men and women of color–understand that good care, knowledge and attention can save lives. As people of color we must believe our lives are worth saving.