How My Sister’s Illness Affected Me


by Michael, age 23

Michael was 20 years old when his sister Melissa was diagnosed with cancer.

Honestly, my sister’s illness didn’t really affect me, at first.

I was a thousand miles away from home at college and I only saw her every few months. In the early stages, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Everyone was so optimistic that the possibility of her dying never crossed my mind. I had never lost anyone close in my family, so you never think that it could happen to you.
Matt and Melissa share hairstyle

I’d visit her in the hospital when I was home and she never looked that sick. No hair maybe, but healthy and normal besides that. I figured she’d do a round of chemo, the cancer would go away and she would just start college a year late. That’s what all the doctors had us believe. In retrospect, I was glad for their positive approach.

So, looking back, it was no big deal. She was sick, but it wasn’t life-threatening (so I thought). She was strong. She would beat it.

As the first year became the second, the seriousness set in. I was going home a lot more, first monthly, then every two weeks. By this time, she was starting to look sick. Physically, the travel took a lot out of me, leaving school so often, putting my personal life and schoolwork on hold, etc. It wasn’t like I was going home for a holiday, or to visit friends, or for vacation. I was going to see my sister in the hospital. I blocked out a lot of it. I knew what was going on but never let myself feel the gravity of the situation.

My brothers were home a lot more than I was. I thought about leaving school for a semester and being home with my family. For a long time I thought it was the “right thing to do”, like it was my “obligation”. But the more I thought about it, I knew that wouldn’t make my sister happy. She would have felt to blame for interrupting my life. I think it made her happy that I was doing what she could not. Selfish? Maybe. But had the tables been turned, I would have been down right pissed if any of my siblings packed up and headed home because I was sick.

I would have said,

“Come home as often as you can, but beyond that have fun and carry on as normal. Just be sure to have a good story or two to tell when you come home.”

I know she felt the same way.

The gradual nature of her cancer proved to be a double-edged sword for me. The good side is that she lived for a little more than two years after she was diagnosed. There were many opportunities for her survival: second and third chances, treatment options, and many ways to live, which she did with passion. That was the bright side.

But when I finally had to accept the inevitable, I had been dealing with the fact that she was really sick for so long, that I was almost numb to it. Even after the final prognosis, it was three months before she passed away. I’m glad her death wasn’t sudden, but the immediate magnitude of losing someone you’ve known all your life is dulled with the passing of so much time. That’s the cutting edge of the sword and the worst part of the whole thing.

I wasn’t there when she passed away. I was at school in Atlanta and scheduled to come home that same day. At first, I regretted not coming home sooner and being there when she died. But two things made me feel better.

My mother helped me realize that had I come home earlier, I would have also left earlier. Melissa may have died just after I left, and that would have made me feel equally bad. Secondly, I’m thankful that I don’t have in my head the image of my sister passing away. In hindsight, I’m glad I wasn’t there. There isn’t anything I wish I had told her before she died. Everything had been said. Good bye’s suck and I’m happy I didn’t have to say ‘good bye’ to my sister. I’m happy I didn’t have to see her in her final hours. I think it was easier for me that way. I’m left with memories of her living, not of her dying. I thank god for that.

I guess the short answer to, “How my sister’s illness affected me”, boils down to this:

It’s been 19 months that she’s been gone, and it still affects me.

I guess even now, I’m still a little numb to what has happened. But as the numbness wears off, it impacts me now more than ever.

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