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Tamara M. admits she and her three siblings weren’t always close growing up. “We fought like cats and dogs,” she confesses. “Especially through our teen years. But as we grew older and had our own children, our relationships matured and we became more like siblings than boxers in a ring. We understood what we missed out on and wanted that closeness for our kids.”
When her older, sister, Ellie* called to say she felt a painless, pebble-size lump in her breast during a routine self-exam, Tamara encouraged her to get it checked out. Two days later Ellie underwent a mammogram.
“Eight days after her 33rd birthday, Ellie got the news,” Tamara remembers. “A biopsy confirmed stage 2 breast cancer – and it was growing fast. “I don’t know why, but I felt my sister needed calm, so that’s what I gave her. I reassured her that she would be okay and just needed to take things one step at a time. It wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I cried.”
Less than a month later, all of Ellie’s siblings were all camped out in the waiting room while she underwent a total mastectomy with flap reconstruction of the left breast. “That day was one of the longest days of my life,” Tamara adds.
It didn’t get any easier when Ellie started chemotherapy infusions 30 days later.
“For the next five months and 15 treatments, I was with her. I sat by her side as they accessed her port and gave her the chemicals that simultaneously helped and harmed. Those days were brutal,” Tamara acknowledges. “I couldn’t not be there for her, though. She leaned on me those days, weeks and months. She thought I was being strong, but what she didn’t know until many years later, was that I broke down after each treatment. My drive home was the time when I could feel the sadness about everything my sister was going through, the toll it was taking on her body, and knowing her children were going through this in their own way, too.”
After infusion therapy, Ellie started oral chemotherapy.
“That was short lived when due to a severe rash it caused,” Tamara explains. “Early in the new year, Ellie was hospitalized with heart palpitations thought to be caused by the original chemotherapy infusion drug she received. Later, she was diagnosed with osteoporosis caused by another chemo drug. Along with the physical side effects of the drugs, she also battled debilitating depression. Of all the lingering changes to her body, I think this was the hardest for her to overcome. Minutes, hours, days and even weeks are spent trying to convince yourself you’re okay and able to move on with your life.”
For Tamara’s sister, moving on meant going back to school to earn her nursing degree.
“I encouraged her every step of the way. She needed something to channel positive energy. It wasn’t easy for her,” Tamara confides. “Her memory wasn’t the same after months of chemotherapy. They call the simple lapses in memory, understanding and vocabulary “chemo brain” and it’s been slow going. She does as much as she can while raising three children, making a living and sometimes just making herself get out of bed.”
Despite the struggles, Ellie was determined to find a path that would allow her to provide others with the support she received throughout her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Nursing allows her to do just that.
Tamara felt humbled and honored when she learned she was the subject of an essay her sister wrote for one of her college classes. Excerpts reflect the depth of the sister’s bonding during Ellie’s life-threatening and life-altering health scare.
“My sister, Tamara, has become my best friend. She is the most generous, selfless person I know. I look up to her and admire the beautiful woman she has become.
“She has been my shoulder to cry on during my hard times. She cheered me on while I was fighting cancer. She was always there to tell me that I would make it through one of the hardest fights of my life.
“She is my own personal Rock of Gibraltar. One day I hope to be as independent and generous as she has been in her life.”
“Today, I can say that my sister is my best friend,” Tamara says. “She may be grateful for the support and strength I was able to give her during a difficult time, but she has shown me how unbelievably strong she is. Together, we can get through anything. Our relationship has come full circle. We’ve gone from two little girls who didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything, to two women who have grown to admire each other for what we’ve been through together.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Originally published 9/28/2017; Revised 2022
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