The Struggle to Stay Present When Coping With Cancer


Is it possible to grieve for someone who is still alive?

Most people associate grief with loss. When you have somebody you love going through cancer, sometimes that grief happens even when that person is still very much alive. When my sister was going through cancer, my grief came from thinking about what the future might look like without her in it.

She was diagnosed on July 11, 2014. People ask if I still remember that day, and the answer is a resounding yes. I have filed it away in my brain, but that doesn't make it any less memorable. I can still see the different shades of white that filled the hospital. I can hear the sounds that, in the course of 3 years, became all too familiar. I can smell the unique mix of Clorox and perfume that is most clinical settings. And I can still feel what it was like to be breathless and heartbroken when we were told my 27-year-old sister was sick with stage 4 cancer.

Enduring cancer is very much surviving. It is about getting through the days the best that you can. It is trying and failing until you find the best combination of coping skills that work for you. It is moments when you scream in frustration at the prospect of losing the one you love, begging for life to go back to the way that you used to be. Or trying to bargain so that you can promise that your sister will be OK, no matter how impossible that may actually be to do.

When you are in the thick of the storm, it feels like the minutes pass like moths. The hours pass like years. While that may seem wonderful, when a death is possibly on the horizon, it also equated to watching my sister suffer. There were horrible nights waiting for dawn to break, just hoping for a better day, and long summer days where I hoped that the moon would provide a sense of relief that the sun had not.

When she was sick, certain things would trigger me. I would hear a song come on the radio, and I would break down thinking that she may not be at my wedding. Or as I was studying, I would be unable to focus, as my mind drifted to the thought of her missing my graduation. When I was pregnant, I wondered if she would survive to meet her nephew.

When doctors would bring the worst news, it often felt like I was drowning. It was as if every word they spoke was water filling a pool and I was unable to escape. Above the water, the world kept going as if nothing happening mattered. It would have been easy for me to give up and just let the bubbles stop, but what then? My sister was the one who was sick, so no matter how hard life seemed for me, it was always harder for her. Thus, my only choice was to keep swimming.

Having endured grief in my life before, I can say that the grief associated with cancer is different than any others I have experienced. Going through cancer is terrifying. It can be lonely, isolating, scary and filled with so many unknowns. It mixes up emotions like fear, anger and disappointment that can come from different places and can be quite confusing.

I am lucky to say that my sister did reach remission and all that I had feared so greatly did not ever come to fruition. What I learned is that despite how hard cancer can be, it is important to not get lost in what hasn't happened yet. When she was sick, I spent time thinking about what could happen when I could have spent that time making memories. When I was so worried about what could be, I sometimes forgot to appreciate what was. Now, in the after cancer, I have tried to focus more on being present and let simple worries fall away.

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Dr. Lauren Pinter-Brown