In May 2016, I received a call and my life (and my family’s) was dramatically changed forever. I was home alone when the phone rang. It was my sister-in-law. She was at the doctor’s office with my brother. I knew he had some scans done earlier in the week for elbow pain and was scheduled to have minor surgery later that morning. I heard my sister-in-law’s voice on the other end,
“They found cancer in his scan.”
“Cancer” repeated in my head, everything else drowning out. I’ll never, ever forget the tightness in my throat, the pain in my chest, and the numbness in my body as I clenched my jaw. Tears swelling up in my eyes. I couldn’t swallow.
It is all I remember hearing her say. It was crushing and seemed unreal.
The word itself scares me because of my preconceived notions. Over the years, I’ve heard many happy success stories, but also enough horrible ones. I can’t help to think it’s pretty much a death sentence. Horrible, I know. But again, many people have happy, successful stories. I know many people that have overcome it, and I truly think that is phenomenal. I was always extremely compassionate toward anyone I knew that experienced cancer (or friend’s that had a loved one going through it). Either way, I think it’s impossible for anyone to completely empathize with a hardship such as this one, unless you’ve gone through it first hand.
One of the scariest parts of cancer is the unknown. It weighs on you every single day — in my case, I thought about my brother 24/7. Not knowing how he or the rest of my family would take the news was awful. Not knowing if treatments will work is heartbreaking. Not knowing if he was going to live, or how long he’d have left was excruciating.
This new thing was something I’ve never experienced, and with someone extremely close. Coping with this type of threat for me was total, uncharted territory. It was a whirlwind of emotions. I felt overwhelmed, sad, angry, scared, and nothing anyone said could fix the problem. Why anyone, but most of all, why my brother? But, I guess sometimes you get to choose your battles and sometimes they choose you.
It’s funny how life works. In fact, just a couple of months before my brother was diagnosed, I lost my job. At the time, I didn’t tell many but I was highly stressed out. I was a newlywed, who literally was laid off upon my return of my honeymoon. Being stressed out over something like that is a natural thing. I began to search for opportunities for a new job, until everything happened with my brother. So whatever situation you may be in, there’s always something else to help put your situation in perspective. It did for me. God truly works in mysterious ways. I wasn’t meant to be working any longer, but I was now meant to be my brother’s keeper. I was able to be present with my brother for his battle, which was far greater than any one I’ve ever had.
I accompanied my brother to almost all of his appointments that first summer. He was being treated by Stanford Cancer Center at Stanford Hospital. It was, however, so comforting to know he was getting cared for by the top ranked, one of the best in the entire United States. My family couldn’t be more grateful we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where my brother had more than a couple of impressive hospital care options.
The smell of antiseptic and the hospital visits became all too familiar for us. I remember every single appointment the first five months— each time I drove him, every single waiting room I sat in, each time I went in to accompany my brother, every nurse, doctor, and hospital worker along the way. I remember what their offices looked like, and staring at their badges during every appointment.
The weight of his diagnosis hit me at his second appointment. The oncologist sitting across from my brother, as I sat to his right side. She discussed his condition as I took notes, and then she looked right at him and suggested that the best route to go was targeted radiation.
My brother stared into thin air, with a glassy, dazed look in his eyes. I felt so helpless. I’ll never forget that it took everything in me to not break down and cry. I needed to be strong for him. I can’t even imagine what goes through a cancer patient’s mind when they hear all the words, but I do know what I felt when I sat next to him hearing that. Too many words. Sarcoma. Biopsy. Radiation. Surgery. Amputation. CT Scan. Tumor. MRI. Chemotherapy. It never ended. He was going to have a long road ahead if he chose to start that process. I felt like our lives started to unravel, but we let it be. You don’t have a choice, but to do your best to keep life as normal as it was before the diagnosis.
As months went on, the impact of his health of course affected my entire family and, as he is my only sibling, I found myself in a place I never expected to be. I desperately tried to look at all the memories we currently had and could make, rather than what we might not have, because whenever that day came, in a year or ten, I could not prepare for it.
My brother’s journey lasted just about two years and two months before he passed, going on his own terms. Throughout most of the two years, I still don’t know if I could ever entirely grasp the reality of what was happening – and in ways I’m grateful for that, because I may have not been able to be the strong, supportive sister I was throughout. I would’ve lost my mind.
Cancer doesn’t just hurt the person with the cancer. The other side of cancer is a roller coaster. The effects rippled out, to my parents, my brother’s wife, my husband and I, and even my son. When a loved one is diagnosed with this disease, a different level of fear arises in you. We were along my brother’s side for all of it, and it was life changing for all of us. Again, we’ll never be able to wholly understand it because it was my brother who had it, but that’s how I can describe it.
So when life gets tough, I would think about the saying, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
Whether you’re religious or not, trusting and believing in something greater than this life, and greater than yourself can bring a sense of peace and a boost of strength. After all, whether we like it or not, there’s only so much we can do and so much we can control.
I have realized more every day that I need to enjoy every moment of this life, and that I am so blessed to be physically healthy. My brother is a hero. He had to take this on, physically and emotionally. I am stronger because of his cancer, and he is an inspiration to everyone.
I realize I’ve never loved harder than these last two years of my life. Love transcends death.
Be well and love hard.