It felt like I had been hit by lightening.
“Gabriel,” my sister Candace said, with a voice that was close to breaking. “I have breast cancer.”
After a moment of stunned silence, not sure I had heard her right, I said something stupid like, “Are you sure?”
“They’re doing a lumpectomy and then they’re talking about radiation, chemotherapy and hormone treatments,” she continued, while I sat numb, listening on the phone to the litany of assaults upon her body that she was about to endure.
“Do you have to have all the other stuff after surgery?” I wondered out loud. “If it’s all in one area and they remove it, why do you have to still do everything else?”
“Just to make sure,” she replied. “The other therapies make it less likely that it will ever reappear and since I’m so young, with children, they don’t want to take any chances.” She paused and swallowed. “And neither do I.”
I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My little sister, the only biologically related sister I have (the other eight being foster sisters) and the one I’ve known since her birth, two years after mine, just told me she had a disease that she could die from. And, because I had worked at a hospice for many years, with people living the last months and days of their lives due to cancer and other diseases, my first reaction was that she was going to soon join the dead.
As if she was reading my mind she said, “The odds are really good that it will all work out fine, but I wanted to let you know.”
She was right, the odds for full recovery from early-detected breast cancer are very good and have continually improved over the last number of years, but knowing that didn’t help much at the time.
“Have they told you about all the side effects?” I asked, aware that, at least in the past, physicians and nurses sometimes minimized the amount of discomfort and reactions that can occur from chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapies.
“Yeah,” she said. “They told me about all the worse things that could happen. They said they had to tell me, even though none of them would probably occur.”
“Sure,” I thought to myself. “I’ve heard that before, then seen people get as sick and tired as an old dog and feel like the treatment was killing them worse than the cancer.” But, I couldn’t tell my sister that. At least I didn’t think I could at the time. I wanted to be hopeful and supportive so I said, “Good. I’m sure you’ll do great.”
She went on to describe when, how and what would happen and how she had discovered the lump. She said that in some ways it was a relief to at least know what it was and why she had been feeling so uncomfortable in that area.
I asked the usual questions. “Do you want me to come up and help with the kids? Is there anything I can DO?”
“No,” she said. “Mark (my brother-in-law) will watch the kids and work told me to take as much time off as I need. I’m a big girl now, remember.”
“I love you,” I said.
“I know, big bro,” she replied. “I love you too.”
I wish there were a switch we could turn on when we hear bad news, a switch that takes us immediately to hope meaning and compassion. But, more often than not, anxiety and apprehension are the first visitors that take me on a roller-coaster ride of grief. My first reaction to Candace’s news had been fear, but after her surgery was over and the treatments started, I began looking at our relationship in a different way and discovered how much I appreciate how close we’ve become as we’ve gotten older and had children of our own.
If there is any blessing or “hidden golden lining” in confronting and living through or dying with a life threatening illness, it must be the sense of presence and appreciation it can give us for the short lives we are living. It makes our mortality real and thus provides a container for the preciousness and value of every life.
Before Candace was diagnosed with cancer, she would have been the last person in the world to ever seek counseling or attend a support group. But, after her surgery she started seeing a private therapist and then attended a cancer support group. I was really taken aback when she first told me she was utilizing such support. As the months went along, she told me of the insights and changes that counseling and the group were creating within her and how she was realizing that she has far more choice in how she chooses to live her life than she had previously envisioned. I guess that’s what people mean when they say that having cancer was or is a blessing, because it helped them to “wake up” and live life instead of being a victim of life.
Luckily, after about two years of treatments, Candace was free and clear of any signs of disease and remains so to this day. I think she sees life differently now and has a deeper awareness, understanding and compassion for others. I have never taken her for granted, but ever since receiving that first phone call, when she told me she had cancer, I’ve appreciated and loved her more than ever and not only contacted her more frequently, but don’t hesitate in letting her now how deeply I care.