A Sister Picks You Up When You Fall
...wipes your tears when you cry, holds your hand when you're afraid.
Cancer? What do you mean cancer? I don't think at the time, I fully understood what my Mom was telling me. I was young and getting ready for college. My future was just beginning. Little did I know that my life would forever be changed. My sister had cancer.
My family packed up and went to Buffalo for her surgery. I will never forget walking into that hospital room. She looked so frail, as if she would break into a thousand pieces. That's when it hit me. My big sis, my hero, my best friend wasn't as invincible as I thought she was. I ran out of the room, not wanting her to see my tears. How could this be happening? She was too young to have breast cancer.
She went through chemo and radiation for months, worked a full time job and went to college, maintaining a 4.0 GPA. It didn't matter how sick she felt, she didn't want to take one moment for granted. She was my inspiration.
Remission. That one word gave us hope that she had finally beat it. She kicked it's butt and we could finally move on. Now they could start the family that had to be put on hold. The birth of my nephew was her greatest gift. But fate was cruel.
Six years later it was back. She was tested for the cancer gene. Positive. This time she had a full masectomy, followed by the removal of her ovaries. She wasn't taking any chances.
I was living in Atlanta, working my dream job, had a beautiful home and a baby on the way. But none of that meant anything if I didn't have my family. So my husband and I packed up and moved back home. I wanted my children to grow up knowing their aunt and what an amazing woman she was. Time was precious and I didn't want to waste a minute of it.
Six years later that bitch cancer came back again. It was in her liver. Hadn't cancer taken enough from her? She had been cut and sliced. Ripped apart. What more did she have to go through? It took her breasts, her ovaries and now part of her liver. She'd had her thyroid removed and her lung punctured when her port was inserted. How do you still feel like a woman, when everything that makes you one is gone?
One weekend while staying at her house, she complained that she was having pains in her stomach. I climbed in bed with her and held her knowing in my gut that something was wrong. My mom woke me at 2 am. My sister had been in the bathroom vomiting all night. I never got ready so fast in my life. I raced her to the hospital and we waited five long, agonizing hours for the results.
I should have seen the signs then. Maybe I was in denial, hell maybe we were all in denial. She lived with it and no one was the wiser. She never complained. I guess we all kind of forgot that she had it. She would never discuss it with you. She didn't want pity or to be treated differently.
She had been on chemo for too long and her body couldn't withstand it any longer. She went into the hospital just before Easter. I never would have imagined that it would be the end of her journey...
Let's Get This Show On The Road
Our Spring Break plans turned into planning a funeral. What was supposed to be a week of fun filled memory making turned into two weeks of hell.
When I walked into her room, a sense of deja vu washed over me, except this time she wouldn't be leaving the hospital. Her skin and eyes were yellow. A glaring sign of liver failure. But she'd always pulled through before. She'd get through this too.
We hoped she would be well enough to come home for Easter, but she needed chemo and they had to get her white blood count up first. So we brought Easter to her. The boys decorated eggs and made cards for her. My mom and I made all of her favorites and we spent Easter in her room.
Monday the doctor came in and said “I don't know what else to do. You're not strong enough to get chemo and your liver is shutting down.”
At that moment my heart stopped. It was as if I was trapped in a nightmare and I couldn't escape. I just stared at the doctor. The words spinning around in my head. “Then find someone that can help her. There has to be other options,” I cried.
My sister scolded me for crying. She didn't want tears to flow in her room.
I remember yelling at her. “You've given up! I can see it in your eyes! You don't want to fight anymore! Well I'm going to fight for you! What would you do if it was me lying in that bed?”
“I would be a basket case,” she whispered.
I begged and pleaded with God to not let her die. I even wished he would take me instead. I felt that her life was worth more than mine. She lived life to the fullest, never wasting a precious moment. She took nothing for granted and knew that any day could be her last.
I layed my hand over her liver and prayed that God would heal her. Envisioned the cancer leaving her body. I tried everything, anything. I couldn't lose her. Not now. We still had so much to do together. She was going to Italy and we were all taking our annual family trip to our beach house. Summers by the pool, shopping trips and fighting over clothes. I didn't want to do any of that without her.
The hardest thing I've ever had to do was explain to my boys that their aunt wasn't coming home. That she was very sick and going to her new home in heaven. I had to be strong for them as my entire world was crumbling around me. They couldn't understand why they weren't able to go to the hospital to say goodbye, but she wanted them to remember her as she was. Full of life and laughter.
I kept the mood light in her room. Joked and teased, so her last days weren't spent drowning in our sorrow. When my strength waned and tears threatened to flow, I would excuse myself and cry alone in the waiting room. Praying one last time for a miracle.
My sister was ready. She had eighteen years to prepare for this day. She knew my nephew was at a point in his life where he would be okay without her. She would tell the nurses “let's get this show on the road.” I don't know if I could have shown the courage that she did.
I had to finally come to terms with the fact that she wasn't going to get better. I had to let go. I went to the hospital early to relieve my brother in-law. As I held her hand, I told her that I couldn't be selfish anymore and that I wanted her to be at peace. She told me that she was tired and wanted it to be over. I told her it was okay to let go, that we would all be fine. We would take care of each other.
I watched my sister, my best friend fade away before my eyes. She never complained. Even when the pain was overwhelming. She didn't want to bother anyone and wouldn't ask the nurses for more pain meds.
One morning she opened her eyes and told my brother in-law “I didn't want to wake up here again.” The nurses made sure that she didn't and she slept through her remaining days.
I watched her body fill with fluid her hands and feet puffed beyond recognition. I held her hand, not wanting to break contact. Letting her know that I was still there and she wasn't alone.
One of the last words she spoke was my name. I will never know what she was trying to tell me and I wonder if I would have felt better had she said nothing at all. The not knowing leaving me with an open door that I can't quite close. I can still hear her voice in my head saying my name.
Before I left that day I kissed her forehead and whispered in her ear “I love you and will miss you.”
The next morning I awoke to her calling me by her nickname for me. A few hours later my brother in-law called to tell me that she had passed away. She had finally gone home. I guess that was her way of telling me goodbye.
Her memorial service was beautiful. We played her favorite song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. I overflowed the room with pictures of her smiling face. Co-workers and friends streamed in disbelieving that she was gone. They had no idea she had cancer. She suffered through it for eighteen years in silence and worked right up until the day she was admitted to the hospital. She was truly an amazing and incredible woman.
There is an emptiness in my heart that will never be filled. A sister's love knows no end, the bond never broken.
Kisses to heaven sis...I love you and miss you.
Facing My Fear
Estrogen & hormones. Do a google search on the two and hundreds of jokes will appear.
For me it's not something that I could laugh at.
Not only did my sister have breast cancer, but she also had an overactive thyroid that had to be removed.
High levels of estrogen are believed to cause breast cancer. Synthetic hormones are what she had to take to compensate for her missing thyroid.
So yeah...those two words are not something I can find humor in.
Do you know what else isn't funny for me? Mammograms. They have all of the cute little cartoons of women with their breasts smashed into pancakes, but for me, I was terrified!
I could care less about them being flattened. Or the discomfort that I would feel. I was more afraid of the results. Being told that I also had breast cancer. That I could be taken away from my family and have them suffer the way my brother in-law and nephew are suffering.
But isn't early detection the whole point of having a mammogram? Yes. But my fear overrode rationality.
My nurse practitioner had lectured me about getting my mammogram. I couldn't afford to keep putting it off, since my sister had breast cancer. But the truth is, I was afraid. My sister would have been beside herself if she had known that I didn't get one. And let's not forget the monthly self exams. Nope. Didn't do those either.
How could I not take these important precautionary measures? Especially after breast cancer stole my sister's life. How could I be so irresponsible? I don't even have an answer for that. I knew I needed one, even had the prescription for it. But I would put off making the appointment.
My friend's sister also had breast cancer and when she heard that I hadn't had my exam, she began sending me weekly reminders.
So I picked up the phone and scheduled my mammogram. Finally.
I asked my husband to go with me. He understood my fears, but also valued my life and knew how important this exam was. Thank God I have such a supportive husband.
Mammogram Day arrived. Nerves were frayed. I am so thankful for the technician that I had. She completely put me at ease, and based on my family history, had the radiologist examine the x-rays before I left.
The results? All clear!
Will I go again next year? Definitely. Will I still have fears? Of course. But I will not let them control me again.