My Family Tree Has Been Hit Hard by Cancer

When my brother was diagnosed with cancer, I faced challenges of reliving my own journey while trying to help him know what to expect.

Last year, my brother was diagnosed with cancer. Immediately, he reached out, assuming I’d have all the answers. Through phone calls, text messages and the Facebook Messenger app, he rattled off questions at lightning speed. I did my best to answer the questions quickly and honestly.

I could hear fear and trepidation in his voice as we talked on the phone, the things unsaid spoke volumes. I did my best to reassure him and offer hope, but it was challenging. His diagnosis wasn’t good. Not only had he been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, but it had also metastasized to his liver and lungs.

He was forced to weigh some heavy decisions. Should he do chemotherapy and struggle through the physical challenges associated with it, or did he opt to forego it, choosing quality of life over quantity? He asked my thoughts and, as hard as it was, I told him the decision had to be his. I couldn’t make it for him. I assured him, whatever he decided, I’d support him.

He chose chemo but after two treatments, he called it quits saying they were too hard and left him feeling terrible.

When a feeding tube became necessary, he reached out again saying he was scared and didn’t know if he could handle it. I reminded him that he was stronger than he thought.

A couple of weeks later, the feeding tube came loose, and he was rushed to the hospital. Sitting beside him, I held his hand and stayed with him as he slept off the anesthesia. It broke my heart to see his body, once strong and vibrant, so weak and frail. He’d lost so much weight and I knew his time was short.

Cancer had shaken our family tree.

My family and I were shocked at how quickly his cancer grew and spread. Within seven months, it had taken my brother’s life.

There was a history of cancer in our family. My maternal grandmother was the first family member I remember dying of cancer. She suffered from glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. My father died of lung cancer, a complication of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for over 50 years. 

Looking through our family tree, I found more instances of cancer — all varied forms among distant relatives. I wondered about each case and the cause behind them.

It didn’t make sense. Both my brother and I had been health conscious. We loved the outdoors and enjoyed clean living. We did everything we could to stay healthy. Why did we get cancer and our sister, the middle child, did not? Did heredity play a part in our cancer diagnoses or were our cases caused by environmental factors? I couldn’t help but wonder.

I do believe second-hand smoke from my father’s cigarettes was a contributing factor in both our diagnoses. Throughout our growing up years, my siblings and I were surrounded by cigarette smoke inside our home, inside closed cars and other places. Growing up in the late 1950s, cigarette smoking was common in many homes. Thankfully, that isn’t the case today.

When a sibling is diagnosed with cancer, it’s hard for a surviving sibling to respond. I hated the fact that my younger brother was being affected by cancer, but what made it worse was knowing he wouldn’t survive.

It has also been difficult for my younger sister. Though she hasn’t been diagnosed with cancer, she can’t help but wonder, with our family history, if one day she might.

I did suffer bouts of survivor’s guilt after my brother passed away. I didn’t understand why I was spared, and his life was taken. Of course, our cancers were different. When I was diagnosed, my disease was only stage 2B. When he was diagnosed, he was already stage 4. My cancer had only traveled to one lymph node. His cancer had metastasized to his liver and lungs.

I was angry at doctors for not finding his cancer sooner. The discovery was made after he began having trouble swallowing. An endoscopy revealed a mass on his esophagus, and everything spiraled down from there.

Even with all the testing available to patients today, cancers aren’t always easily discovered. That’s one reason I’ve tried to encourage family members to listen to their bodies. If a person pays careful attention, the body can give off warning signals when something is amiss. That’s the time to seek medical attention.

I miss my brother terribly and wish we had more time together, but I still have the precious memories we shared. I’ll treasure those forever. Cancer can’t take those from me.

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