Sister, confidant, multitasker
ABOUT JULIE, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- Growing up, Chris and I were always close. She’s my only sister. We always gravitated toward each other, despite our differences.
- I knew the basics of breast cancer and its treatments—chemo, radiation, pills. It took a lot of reading until I began to understand metastatic breast cancer.
- It’s hard for me to look at Chris—my sister. On the inside, I know how sick she is.
- I’m so thankful our relationship has grown stronger and we’re able to spend so much time together.
About Me & My Sister
When my sister Chris was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, it threw our entire family into a whirlwind of appointments, questions, and emotions. When Chris allowed me to be her caregiver, I wasn’t quite sure what this role was going to entail. But over time, I’ve learned it’s being the person who answers the phone in the middle of the night or who’s there to crack a joke. If there’s a silver lining to this terrible disease, it’s that Chris and I have made more time for each other since her diagnosis.
Growing up, Chris and I were always close. She’s my only sister. We always gravitated toward each other, despite our differences. I’m a “fly by the seat of my pants” free spirit kind of girl. I love the unplanned and spur-of-the-moment. Chris is not that way. She likes things planned out—a control freak, one might say. If there’s one thing we have in common, it’s definitely our twisted sense of humor.
Shocked By Cancer
Over time, husbands, jobs, and kids took all our time and Chris and I began to make each other less of a priority. That’s why I was so excited for our long-awaited visit to our parents’ cabin in Northern Wisconsin. We were leaving on a Friday. I was at work, watching the clock tick by slowly. Chris had a doctor’s appointment, so it was only a matter of time before we hit the road.
Then the phone rang. I wasn’t able to answer it at first, so my sister left me a voicemail to call her as soon as possible. I tried calling several times, and when I finally got through, she was crying uncontrollably. I tried to calm her down and kept asking her to take a second and breathe, but all I could make out was “I might have cancer, and I’m sitting in the clinic parking lot alone.” I told her to meet me at her house and we would go from there. I ran out of the office and started driving.
Coincidentally, we pulled in at the same time. She briefly explained that the doctor had found “something,” but they weren’t sure what it was. They’d scheduled her for an MRI later in the day, and on our way to the appointment, there weren’t a lot of words to be said. Somehow, we both knew that they must have found cancer. The nurses were waiting for us when we arrived, and took us back before we could even gather our thoughts. As anxious as we were for her results, we had to accept we wouldn’t get answers right away, considering it was 5pm on a Friday. Because so much had happened, we decided it’d be best to stay home. Two girlfriends and I stayed with Chris for the weekend, talking, eating, and drinking several glasses of wine.
In a strange way, canceling our trip to our parents’ cabin and spending the weekend by ourselves was a blessing. It was a good time for us to reconnect and have the sister time we’d been missing out on. We talked about her boys and what the future might look like for them; we talked about the cancer her husband had been diagnosed with two years prior, and we also went to some dark places. That twisted sense of humor of ours came in handy.
Learning To Cope
Three long days later, our parents and I were waiting for Chris and her husband to come home from the doctor appointment. She walked in the door and said those three little words: “I have cancer.” No one said a word. “…It’s Stage IV…breast cancer…it’s in my bones…I don’t want to die.”
After crying most of the night, I went online. There is so much material on cancer. I knew the basics of breast cancer and its treatments—chemo, radiation, pills. It took a lot of reading until I began to understand metastatic breast cancer. Support groups, walks, conferences, social media…you name it, I read it.
Looking back, I now recognize I was going through phases of dealing with cancer. In my case, the first phase was Information Overload. The next phase presented me with Questions. I wanted to know why: Why my sister? Why Stage IV? What happened to Stages I and II? Heck, I would even take Stage III! Could this have been prevented? I then moved into the Anger phase. Our family has no history with cancer, so who gave cancer the right to affect Chris? I gradually moved into a phase of Acceptance. Reading the stories of other brave men and women living with breast cancer helped me accept what was happening. I didn’t have time to have a pity party. I knew Chris needed me. I made myself available, offered support, and invited her to let me know what her needs were.
In This Together
In all honesty, I really struggled with what a caregiver should look like. I don’t need to live with, feed, or take Chris to appointments, but it has been important for me to take a bigger role in her life, which isn’t always easy. I work full-time, have elderly parents, and have a family of my own to raise. I often feel guilty splitting my time between my family and Chris. I want to be there for everyone, but I know that’s not possible. So all I can do is my best, and my best is pretty good.
Doing my best also included supporting her doctor’s decision to put Chris on IBRANCE, an oral medication for HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Chris was prescribed IBRANCE in combination with letrozole, which is an aromatase inhibitor, as her first-line, or initial, treatment for mBC, and I’m thankful that right now it seems to be working for Chris. Remember, everyone will respond differently to treatment.
Chris has some side effects, including headaches, fatigue, and a low white blood cell count. Her dosage was reduced to help manage her low white blood cell count. Other people might experience other common side effects, including infections or nausea. It’s important to talk to a doctor to learn about all the potential risks and benefits.
Chris’s experience has made me proactive about my own health. Now that we have a family history with cancer, I had to take a new approach to my appointments. Shortly after her diagnosis, I scheduled a mammogram for myself. Thankfully, everything looks okay. My doctor and I had a great conversation about my future, my daughter’s future, and also my sister’s future. After that appointment, I felt so much better.
It’s hard for me to look at Chris—my sister—who, from the outside, appears healthy. But on the inside, I know how sick she is. I’m so thankful our relationship has grown stronger and we’re able to spend so much time together. In the back of my mind, it’s hard knowing that our time is limited: Is this our last birthday or holiday together? My sister and I are determined to live our lives as fully and richly as possible. We have an idea of what the future might hold, and as sisters, we will get through as best we can—together.