As nurses, we are taught that a social barrier of sorts needs to exist. But while my sister was sick, some of her care team opened up about their own experiences with cancer and broke down that barrier a lit bit. She had an incredible nurse, Stacey, who shared her brother's brave battle. When my sister was at her sickest, I would sometimes think about Stacey, and it helped me to know that despite cancer being in her life, she was proof that life could go on.
I recently had a close friend call and say that her brother had been diagnosed with cancer. She is 26 and he is just 22. Like I did with my sister, my friend made the choice to become a caregiver. Together they face an uphill battle with stage 3 leukemia. At first, I didn't know what to say, but then I realized that just like Stacey, I was in a unique place to share my own experiences to help somebody else. My letter to her is below. She granted me permission to publish it.
I wish that I could make it all go way – all the pain that you must be feeling, the dizziness that you are experiencing from the whirlwind that has swept through your life. Before you heard the word “cancer,” your life didn't seem that abnormal from everybody else, and now it feels anything but normal.
Being a caregiver for the one you love will be one the hardest things that you do. You will do it, and after the longest days, you will wonder how you will possibly have the strength to do it all over again tomorrow. You will spend more time in hospitals than at home and learn the name of every nurse in the oncology unit.
You will see your brother cry and be in pain that, no matter how much you want to, you will not be able to absolve. He will be angry, and, at times, he will take it out on you. Know that he loves you it isn't personal. If anything, take it as a compliment that he loves you enough to be vulnerable. That being said, don't be afraid to have boundaries. Cancer isn't a free pass to treat somebody you love poorly.
He will have days when he can't get out of bed and nights filled with throwing up and tears from the pain. You will curse cancer and the chemo that he has been given in an effort to cure him. You will fight back tears in an effort to be strong, but remember that you are human too. And sometimes, him seeing you cry will make him know that it is OK to be scared.
No matter how many times I watched them dose chemo, give a blood or platelet transfusion or how many times my sister was admitted to the hospital, it was still hard. I wish that I could say that seeing my sister in a hospital bed got easier, but it didn't. Seeing her in that bed highlighted that despite our best efforts, she was a cancer patient, and every time I saw her there, it broke my heart.
Although we are both caregivers and our siblings both will have endured cancer, you will have your own journey. Your own experiences, and while I can share my story, you will have your own. You are so very strong, and I know that you can do this. I also know, that if you can't – if you chose to not be a caregiver – that is OK too.
Your love for your brother isn't determined by how much time you spend taking care of him. There are many ways to show your love. You can sit bedside and watch Bronco games or just bring a home-cooked meal, so he doesn't have to eat hospital food. Or go in on chemo days so that those hours pass just a little more quickly than they otherwise might have.
I tried my best to push through cancer and truth be told, that may have been my biggest mistake. I didn't process all of the emotions while they were happening, and I didn't practice self-care. I lived in the hospital with her and forgot that even though she had cancer and I was caring for her, that I didn't have cancer and that I was also had to take care of myself.
Cancer isn't going to be easy, and watching your brother go through it will be even harder than knowing he has cancer. There aren't any magic tricks that I have or special secrets to help a sibling relationship endure this disease. I do, however, hope that much like Stacey did for me, my words help you get through this difficult time.