Cancer Is Not My Sister, and My Sister Is Not Her Cancer


A woman describes the grueling experience of watching cancer attack her sister's body and wishing she could stop it.

As my sister grew sicker from cancer, I watched the shadow of the sister that I had grown up with form. A skinny version of her slowly formed as 60 pounds melted away. I watched as her eyes sunk in, her skin yellowed, her spine became prominent, and her lymph nodes visibly appeared. Over nearly seven months, my sister turned into somebody that, even without medical training, I could identify as a patient with cancer.

Others around her noticed some of these changes and would ask if she was OK. More often than not, she would say yes. In truth, she was far from OK. She was waging a battle with stage 4 cancer, and she was in denial about having it. She did all she could to hide the truth from others and from herself. At 27 years old, she was terrified to hear that something was wrong, and so for her, not knowing was a better option than hearing that she was seriously ill.

After diagnosis and treatments began, her physical appearance was up and down. Once receiving care, her skin tone leveled out, and she began to gain back some of the weight she had lost. To outsiders, she began to look less like a person with cancer and more like her old self. As her caregiver, I saw the realities of what cancer does to the human body.

When she would undress for a shower, her port site was always prominent in her chest. Nearly poking through her skin and the catheter tubing that would protrude when she turned her head to the side just so. It took longer than they had thought it might, but she would eventually lose her hair. Her swollen lymph nodes created abnormal lumps by her neck, along her spine and by her groin. When I performed a physical exam on her, it broke my heart to run my gloved hands across them, knowing that I was physically feeling cancer attacking her.

For others who saw my sister, I am not sure they saw cancer's effects on her. Beyond her body changes, cancer and her treatments had an immense impact on her mind. After her seizure, she would experience her first bout of amnesia. Unexplainable by medical professionals, it took days for her to come out of it. She would later experience progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) in her brain because of an immunologic that would cause the second bout of amnesia. Combined with the chemo-brain, things like simple daily conversation become much more complicated than they once had been.

The energy was a constant battle. She was tired and fought to stay awake throughout the day, sometimes falling asleep mid-sentence while eating. It was difficult because, at times, it was challenging to find a balance between letting her get the rest that her body needed and helping her live each day. There were times when we thought she would not survive and watching her sleep time away was not easy to do.

It was in those moments that I tried to see past cancer. I tried to set aside the image before me and remember that my sister had cancer, but she was far more than the disease. While she was in remission, there were times that I would catch myself looking at her, and I saw the patient that she once was. What we go through is always a part of us, but that single part of who we are does not define us. As she begins treatment for this current cancer fight, I am trying to remind myself that cancer is not my sister, and my sister is not cancer.

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