Life, with or without cancer, is about learning to let go of all that we can't control, and focusing on what we can control.
On a hot July day, I stood in a hospital hallway as my world began to change. It was a place that I had known at times in my life, but I never could have imagined it would be a place that I would call home. Everything was painted in neutrals and with limited windows, it felt far more claustrophobic than it truly was. As we learned of the illness my sister was battling, my legs were stiff as boards. The world kept going, but in that moment, it didn’t for me.
People passed by. They tried not to stare at a family falling apart, but human curiosity is a powerful thing. Somebody led us into a room, but I was too numb to let the gravity of the situation settle in. Words were spoken, but the only things running through my mind were the choices that my sister failed to make sooner. Although I was incredibly fearful of all that we didn't know, when I looked at her, I was consumed by anger. I made the choice to be there anyway, but it took a long time for the anger to subside.
It was only later when I came to realize that she had simply been incapable of making the right choices. It is not that she didn’t care, or that she was scared. It was that she didn’t know. She didn’t know what was wrong, what they would say or how things would turn out. The unknowns had simply been too great of an emotion for her to overcome.
As she grew weaker, we all struggled. It was a shock for a very long time as we wrestled with this new reality. Every time we had a setback with her care, anger would resurface and my mind would go back to her not seeking treatments. My parents supported us to the best of their abilities, but as her disease wore on, so did my family’s patience. Though not accurate, it often felt like it was just she and I fighting cancer on our own.
It took a few months of being in and out of the hospital and a giant learning curve, but I eventually began to feel comfortable with the life that was now set before me. It had never been in the plans for me, at the age of 23, to be a full-time caregiver and be responsible for another human being. It was rarely easy, as her inability to stay at home affected her ability to live as an independent young woman. As her acuity changed, so did the amount of time that I was required spend caring for her.
I often tried to convince myself that this was a temporary situation. That she had a curable illness and things would eventually return to normal. I was in such denial that I was blinded to the fact that things would never again be how they were prior to her diagnosis. Anger was common as she still seemed reluctant to listen. Even though it was her care, history had shown that she was not capable of deciding what was best for herself. Arguments became a fixture in our daily lives as the roles of sisters and patient/caregiver were invariably blurred by circumstance.
Our days were often filled with evaluations and testing and we saw numerous doctors and specialists. Every time results were given, they seemed worse than the last. She was not getting better as any of us had thought she would. In fact, she was getting markedly worse as time passed. As I was the one responsible for her care, I often felt as though I had failed her. It was in these moments when I was angry with myself. Because no matter how hard I was trying, I couldn’t seem to save her. Therefore, to me, I wasn't doing enough.
She had no control over this diagnosis; cancer is one of those things that just happens. But had she made different choices, it could've been a different journey. In the fall of 2014, with the help of many, I came to understand that since you can't go back, why spend so much time trying? It doesn't mean that I am at peace with how the events of the past unfolded. When she makes the same mistakes that she has, I still get angry. I'm human, but I continue to work on accepting what is.
There is a lot that we don't have control over when it comes to cancer, including our emotions. We do have control over how it is that we process and express them to others. The hardest things in life can bring out the worst in people. They can also bring out the best.
While I never thought that I would morph into the person that I am now, I am happy to be where I am at. My sister’s illness has taught me about the kind of person that I want to be. It has also shown me the person that I don't want to be. And in all ways, it has helped to shape me into the person that I am today.