Written by Anvitha Reddy
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Jake Prigoff
In late July 2017, I rummaged through my closet looking for my favorite swimsuit to pack for my family’s vacation to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Filled with excitement, I ran downstairs to find my mom, a physician, who was looking at a lump on my older brother’s neck with concern.
I was used to my brother having health issues; since I was 8 years old, he had been in and out of hospitals for Crohn’s disease and gastrointestinal issues. The night before our flight, my parents decided to cancel the vacation—which I had been looking forward to all summer—to get my brother’s lymph node looked at by his doctor.
While I was initially disappointed, after a few days of staying home alone while my brother saw specialists, I realized that this was worth more than a missed vacation. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
While we’ve been truly fortunate that he has fully recovered, receiving the news that my sibling was diagnosed with pediatric cancer was an immensely difficult and turbulent experience. Here’s what I wish I knew before I went through it.
You are allowed to ask questions.
My brother was diagnosed when I was 13, so I was old enough to comprehend what was going on and use Google to help settle my curiosity. Still, my concern for my brother stopped me from asking questions. I’ve always been my family’s entertainer and jokester, so I felt like I should fulfill my role and distract from everything that was going on by acting as normal as I could. As a result, I never brought up his diagnosis.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this situation was not normal, and I was allowed to be curious and concerned and express those feelings. While I was deeply worried internally, I never asked questions or checked in because I wanted to be the spunky kid I always was for my family.
Now, three years after my brother is cancer-free, I feel like I missed out on his small victories and updates throughout his journey. I wish I knew to ask questions about my concerns and that I hadn’t been afraid to act differently, because this experience was anything but mundane.
It’s not your fault.
I barely remember a time my brother did not have any health concerns, while I’ve always been healthy. I remember questioning how it was fair that I didn’t have any issues, though we have the same DNA. When he was enduring chemotherapy, I was allowed to go to school with my full head of hair while everything was stripped from him.
I felt guilty. I obviously could not control what my brother’s diagnosis was or what diseases I didn’t have, but I felt like I didn’t deserve to be healthy. Witnessing someone you share early memories with suffer is difficult, but the reality was—and still is—that his pediatric cancer was not my fault.
I wish I could tell myself that it’s OK to do things you enjoy and spend time on yourself, even if you aren’t physically suffering like your sibling is. My brother’s recovery was not in my control; therefore, there was no reason for me to feel guilty for it.
I’m allowed to share my story.
I’ve always been an open person, but not many people have heard about this part of my life. I didn’t want people to feel bad for me because I knew millions of families had worse prognoses. I didn’t tell any friends, but rumors spread around, as they tend to do. I thought this was my brother’s story and it wasn’t my place to share it, though he was OK with it being shared. Now, a large number of my friends do not know about one of the most difficult points in my life.
Sometimes, it’s hard to see this experience as part of my story, even though it affected my life so drastically. Though I wasn’t experiencing the physical impacts of pediatric cancer, I wish I knew that my thoughts, struggles, and emotions were just as important. Each person has a choice in how they want to discuss their experiences, but the thought that he had it worse should not have held me back.
Everyone reacts differently.
Every group of siblings has a unique dynamic which results in a different experience with a cancer diagnosis. I reacted by closing off from friends and experiencing a great deal of guilt. Others might immediately seek comfort from friends and family. There is no guidebook on how to be a good sibling to a cancer patient or ideal response to the diagnosis. I wish I had known that there was no “right” response to this.
The word “cancer” is scary, especially when you are young and at a stage of immense personal growth. Focusing on your health is also important, so make sure you aren’t neglecting your growth while trying to be there for your loved one. No matter how you take the news, it’s important to remember that this experience is part of your journey, and you are allowed to accept the change, feel upset or frustrated, and make decisions for yourself.