A SIBLING’S PERSPECTIVE of a CHILDHOOD CANCER DIAGNOSIS
AS A YOUNGER SISTER
In 2009, my sister Jill was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I was in grade 4 and had no idea what having cancer meant. My Granny had passed away from cancer years before, and hearing stories of other people passing away from the disease made me believe that cancer was something people didn’t live through. I had only ever heard of adults getting cancer, so you can imagine my surprise and my confusion when my 11-year-old sister was diagnosed. After the first trip to CHEO (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) with my sister, I very quickly learned that my cancer theories were very wrong. I Overheard a conversation between two men in the hospital cafeteria that made me realize that all cancer wasn’t terminal. One man was talking about his son, and how his battle with cancer would be over after one more round of chemo. Hearing this man’s story really made me feel better about everything, knowing that if his son could win his battle, gave me confidence that my sister could too. At CHEO, I saw so many other children battling cancer. It is a very scary sight to witness. Seeing so many kids my age, some younger and some older sick with this disease really opened up my eyes. Childhood Cancer was something that happened to other kids and not just my sister Jill. I was overwhelmed and I soon realized that my sister was now a cancer patient. I was skeptical of the disease and the treatments at first. My older sister was so athletic and energetic; I could never imagine her to be anything other than that. I never thought she would be sick like those kids in the hospital that day. Again, my 9-year-old cancer perceptions were all very wrong!
After that trip to CHEO, I thought I knew everything I needed to about cancer and felt a lot more confident about the whole thing. I thought that Jill would spend her 3 days in the hospital and get her treatment and then would return home from chemotherapy and be back to her normal outgoing self. Our family would continue on with life as usual. I was very wrong!
When Jill returned home, she was very sick. She was so weak she had to be carried up the stairs, she couldn’t eat without throwing up and she was so tired she could barely speak. Seeing my older sister like that was terrifying and from there on, it only got harder! Everyday when I got home from school I would have to change my clothes and make sure I was clean and not bringing home germs to Jill. I never talked about it to the kids at school because I knew Jill didn’t like people talking about her being sick. I wasn’t allowed to go to friend’s houses most of the time, because either the risk of bringing home germs to Jill was too high or my parents would both be at the hospital and there would be no one to drive me. For a 9-year-old girl that was extremely hard. At that age, missing a birthday party or a sleepover feels like the end of the world. I went from being the baby of the family to having a lot more responsibilities and was no longer the center of attention. For the youngest of the family, that’s not always easy to deal with. Some days I felt like I lost my big sister. Even though she was at home most of the time and I would see her before and after school, it wasn’t the same. She just wasn’t the same Jill. She was sleeping most of the time so I couldn’t really talk to her and her not being at school with me was really hard to get accustomed to. I was always used to have a play buddy but I had to play by myself most of the time because Jill wasn’t strong enough to partake in our normal childhood activities. I had no one to wrestle or build snow forts with. We couldn’t play in the creek anymore because it was too dirty and full of germs for Jill. It was a lonely time. If Jill was having a good day between treatments, we’d sometimes sneak away from our parents and go play back at the creek. Looking back, and understanding more about the disease and the complications that can arise from treatment, I think we both can say that was a really bad idea, but at that time it meant the world to the both of us. Before Jill got sick, I don’t think we really understood just how fortunate we were to have great siblings that we can have fun with and depend on but we certainly learned how important family is and how much we depend on our siblings.
After a few rounds of chemo, Jill started to lose her hair so she made the decision to shave it off before she lost it all. This was a really hard time for my sister. As a young girl, your hair is one of the single most important things to you, and to see the pain she had to deal with when losing that part of her, broke my heart. It was weird getting used to her looking different, especially when she got a wig but she was still my beautiful older sister.
After months of chemo and radiation Jill was cancer free and my whole family was just so happy to have her healthy again.
Shortly after Jill recovered she returned to school and went back to being with her friends and playing sports. Things finally returned to normal. It was 3 days before summer vacation that the doctors told us Jill’s cancer had came back! She had relapsed! Receiving this diagnosis was much harder to hear the second time was so much more difficult because I knew what she had to go through and what was going to happen to her. Hearing that she was sick again and would have to go through a longer and harder chemo and radiation protocol scared me and my entire family. That day, was the only day I saw my sister cry throughout her entire treatment. If you knew my sister Jill, you would know that she doesn’t cry, ever! This time Jill understood what having cancer really meant and what she would have to go through.
That summer was a hard one, but we tried really hard to make the best of it. Being more experienced with cancer protocols, side effects and practices, we knew exactly what we had to do for Jill to make sure she was safe and healthy. When she was feeling good we would go outside or swim in the pool and when she was having a bad day, we were there to support her. We couldn’t do the family excursions to our friends’ cottages because the river water was too dirty and so it wasn’t safe for Jill. Jill would never want us to miss out on anything and encouraged us to go and not worry about her but we were where we wanted to be, with Jill! Despite what she was going through, my sister Jill has always been considerate that way, and didn’t want us to give up our summer activities for her. I remember for my birthday that year, Jill’s results said she was neutropenic (meaning her white blood cell count was very low and she was susceptible to infection). I was supposed to have a birthday party that weekend but because Jill couldn’t be around other people when she was that low, we had to cancel it. She felt really bad that my birthday was cancelled but a few weeks later when Jill was feeling better we had my birthday party and Jill ran a bunch of fun games for my friends and I. She did everything she could to ensure that my birthday would be great. It is things like that, that made me realize how lucky I am to have a sister like Jill.
After a few more months of chemo, Jill was finally cancer free once again and has been for going on 6 years now. As hard as this experience was for my sister, it is also a big part of who she is today; a STRONG, CONFIDENT and truly amazing young woman! Jill is a role model for me and my oldest sister Jenna and she is truly the strongest person we know. I will always be there for both of my sisters, just like I know they will always be there for me. We will always lean on each other for support and they will always be my best friends. Jill will always be our CHAMPION!
AS AN OLDER SISTER
As an older sister, I am expected to set good examples, be a role model and look out for my younger sisters. When growing up we were always told that your family came first and they were the most important people in your life. This is not only because they are always going to be your family, but also because there is no doubt that they would go out of their way to keep you safe, healthy and happy. Being raised like this made my sister’s diagnosis that much harder. This became one of the only times in my life that I couldn’t keep my sister safe. It was hard to know that she was suffering and there was nothing I could do. I was also at an age where I understood how much this was affecting my parents, it was hard to see them cry because again, there was nothing I could do.
There is a significant age gap between myself and my two younger sisters, Jill and Kathleen. Although we all have a lot of great and memorable times together, we have always just been far enough away in age that we are at different stages in our lives. When Jill was first admitted into the hospital there was a fear in my eyes that you just didn’t quite see in Kathleen’s, her understanding of the situation was so much different than mine. When looking back I sort of envy that, as she didn’t always fully understand what was going on and it allowed her to be more optimistic and supportive. At this time, I realized that I was going to have to really tap into those “big sister skills” I had, and not only be there for Jill but also for Kathleen. This situation was life changing for me as I feel that I really had to mature quickly in order to take on a lot of responsibility I was left with when Jill was in the hospital.
As Jill began to spend more and more time in the hospital Mom had to take off work to be with her at all of her treatments, appointments and when she was home in between. Dad continued to juggle running the family business and being in the hospital with Mom and Jill. Although not at all by choice, sometimes this left Kathleen and I on our own. We spent a lot of time together, we went shopping, to the movies, swimming, out for dinner and just lounged around the house. However, this also left us with cleaning the house, making our own dinners, getting to extracurricular activities or friend’s houses. Thankfully we have great family friends and extraordinary Grandparents or we wouldn’t have been able to make it to as much as we did. Although we still missed out on some things everyone really tried to keep our lives as normal as possible. There were times where things got tough and Kathleen and I felt that it was unfair that we weren’t being paid as much attention to. Looking back, it seems like such a miniscule problem, but at the time it was life altering.
Even though I was old enough to understand Jill’s diagnosis, I don’t think I ever really realized how serious it was. Being older now and looking back, it is really apparent to me how strong my sister is. She overcame hurdle after hurdle and is a successful, strong, beautiful woman on her way to University next Fall. I really thought because I was older I was supposed to be their role model, but as it turns out they have both became mine. I look up to them in everything they do. Both Jill and Kathleen have given up countless hours to raise money for Candlelighters and Childhood Cancer Awareness. Even at a very young age they were selling baked goods at the end of our driveway raising over $1000. They have been taking part in fundraising for Candlelighters for over 8 years now and I don’t think anyone could slow them down if they tried.
This passion for fundraising obviously sprouted from my sister’s diagnosis but, we take part in it for so much more than that. Candlelighters made my sister’s process easier, as well as my whole family’s. They helped us with the financial side of things, the support and grief side of things, but they also worked so hard to allow my sisters and myself to just be kids. They took us to concerts, shopping, gave us gift cards and pillows, anything to lift our spirits a little bit. Most importantly we knew they were always there for us when we needed them and that their main priority was making Jill’s, as well as all the other cancer patients’, stay in the hospital bearable. To thank Candlelighters for everything they did for our family, we have made it a goal to fund raise to make it easier for them to help other families in need.
In times like this you really realize how important your family is. My sisters are my best friends and I could never imagine my life without them. I know there were moments during Jill’s treatments that were devastating but now so many years later it honestly hard to remember the bad things. What sticks out most to me are the positives; the support we got from our community and friends, the close bond of our family but I think the most important and number one thing I remember is Jill’s strength and optimism. For someone to go through that at her age and persevere through it like she did is a miracle and it just demonstrates the type of character she has. I am nothing but proud of Jill and all her accomplishments. If anything is certain, she will NEVER give up! She is a true CHAMPION!