Memories Along the Cancer Journey

A simple banana split can be a powerful memory, and a powerful tool, to help caregivers and patients find the strength to keep going on their cancer journey.

Banana, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and sprinkles. To some, that may sound like the beginning of a shopping list or maybe a recipe. While it is distinctly the ingredients of a banana split, you would be incorrect. These ingredients make up the best coping skill that I discovered while my sister was battling cancer.

As most anybody who is in a hospital knows, cafeterias do not have the best of food. And with my sister being in the hospital so frequently, the food options ran slim and choices were limited. During her first hospital stay, my sister had a reaction to her chemotherapy treatment. What we did not know was that reacting and having complications would be normal for her and every part of cancer came with its own special complications.

Although when diagnosed they had said she was terminal, before she went home, they had re-diagnosed her and declared they she was “highly curable”. She was in and out of the hospital numerous times after that, but it was fairly smooth sailing. Early November changed all of that when we got devastating news. She had pneumonia caused by the chemotherapy she was on and all treatments would need to stop while her body healed. Second, to that, she would remain hospitalized for an undetermined amount of time and the certainty that she would be home for the holidays was not something that her doctors could guarantee.

My sister was nearly inconsolable, and I was not sure what to do to make her feel better. By this time, I knew many who worked at the hospital and while what was wrong could not be fixed- I knew that I needed to do something. I called the kitchen and ordered a banana split, but I was told they did not do them. I called back and Jane answered. She told me that while they did not do banana splits, she could send each ingredient up. And that is how the banana split tradition started. From that day until the day she was discharged with her bone marrow transplant, good news or bad— we had banana splits.

I would place the order from room service, they would send two bowls and two spoons because they knew who it was for. I would make two banana splits and we would sit at the table in her room and eat. We never ate them without reason because they were special.

On the best days, those rare times when we heard that a scan went well or when she was being discharged after a prolonged stay, we would sit and laugh. On the hardest days, we would eat and reminisce about what we would do when she went home. Or we would talk about a happy memory to distract from the heartache that we both felt.

It was my way of trying to make the most out of what we had. I was trying to fix a moment in time with something special and when told that she was going home two days before Thanksgiving, I wanted to celebrate and that banana splits that we had shared weeks earlier came to mind. I did not intend for it to become what it did, but some of the smallest things that happen during cancer are the things that she remembers the most.

Even now, as we are almost five years out from her diagnosis, whenever we eat banana splits, I can’t help but to smile. Because even though that dessert was had during the best and worst of times, I am able to reflect back on that time with a different perspective than I once could. And banana splits are a reminder that, not just with cancer, but in life- it is not always about the biggest are the grandest tradition. It is about what you make and the memories that matter most.