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When someone in the family is diagnosed with an illness it turns the entire family upside down. Sometimes it’s a wake-up call. Sometimes it’s the catalyst that brings a family together in a way that they never thought possible.
This is what happened to my family.
“Bully, mean and hateful is how I used to describe her. Little did I know she would one day be my best friend. Growing up, Tamara and I were inevitably fighting about one thing or another from what to watch on television, or what games to play, to whose turn it was to do the dishes.”
Let me tell you a little about my family. I am the second of four children. There’s my older sister that is two years older, my little sister that is two years younger and then my baby brother that came along four years later. To say we weren’t close growing up is an understatement. We fought like cats and dogs. Especially through our teen years. As we grew older and had our own children, our relationships also grew in maturity and we became more like siblings than boxers in a ring. We wanted our kids to grow up close since none of our cousins lived near us growing up. We understood what we missed out on and wanted that closeness for our kids.
When my 32-year-old sister called me on Feb. 20, 2009, she shared some alarming news. During a casual self-check of her breast she felt something that seemed off. There was no pain, no redness, just a tiny pebble of a lump. But it was there. She didn’t panic, but felt in her gut that it was something she needed to get checked out. She got in to see her OB/GYN three days later. They scheduled a mammogram two days after that. On March 11, 2009, eight days after her 33rd birthday I got the call from my sister on my way home from work. Her biopsy confirmed the diagnosis, stage 2 breast cancer of the left breast, and it was growing fast. I don’t know why but I felt that she needed calm, so that’s what I gave her. I reassured her that she would be okay and that she just needed to take things one step at a time. It wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I cried. She didn’t need that right then. She needed someone that she could turn to for calm and clarity. That was what I could give her.
“Tamara has been my shoulder to cry on during my hard times. She cheered me on while I was fighting cancer. She was always there for me. She drove me to my treatments. She took me shopping to try to cheer me up. Even though she did not have to, she also put a lot of time and money into a fundraiser some of my friends held for me. She was always there to tell me that I would make it through one of the hardest fights of my life. She was always fighting for me, even if I didn’t want her to.”
Treatment was discussed and decided upon. On April 16, 2009, my big sister underwent a left breast total mastectomy with flap reconstruction. That day was one of the longest days of my life. The entire family took turns going to see her during her surgery preparations. Then we all sat in the waiting room. Some reading, some watching TV, we just didn’t want to think or talk about why we were all there and the seriousness of the situation.
Thirty days after her surgery she started chemotherapy. We knew this would be a tough battle. I remember wanting to be there for her that day, but my mom felt strongly about being there that day so she went. After that first treatment I couldn’t let her go through that without me. For the next five months and 15 treatments, I was with her. I sat by her side as they accessed her port and dispensed the chemicals that simultaneously helped and harmed. Those days were brutal, but I couldn’t not be there for her. She leaned on me a lot those days, weeks and months. She thought I was being strong and maybe I was, but what she didn’t know until many years later was that I cried. I broke down after each treatment. On my drive home was the time for me to feel the sadness that my sister was going through, something that was taking such a toll on her body, and that her children were going through this in their own way. But I never let her see that. She needed strength and I was going to be the one to give it to her.
After a break from chemotherapy infusions came oral chemotherapy in early November 2009. That was short lived due to a severe rash it caused. In January 2010, she was hospitalized with heart palpitations believed to be caused by the first chemotherapy infusion drug she received. Later that year came the diagnosis of osteoporosis caused by another one of the chemotherapy drugs she received. Aside from physical ramifications of the drugs, she now also battles debilitating depression. Of all the lingering changes to her body I think this is and will continue to be the hardest for her to overcome. It means minutes, hours, days and even weeks of trying to convince yourself that you’re okay and able to move on with your life.
“Since I made the decision to go back to school, Tamara has been someone from whom I have asked advice. What should I go for? Do you think I can do it? She has been there to help me be realistic about my expectations. She has helped me realize that even though I will have to give up some of my time with my children and friends, I will gain a positive future, a career, and independence. She is my biggest supporter in my quest for education. She is continuously cheering me on and telling me I can do it.”
After my sister’s life-changing experience, she made the decision to go back to school. I encouraged her every step of the way. She needed something to do to channel positive energy and this was a good way to do that. It wasn’t easy for her. Her memory wasn’t the same after months of chemotherapy. “Chemo brain” is what they call it; simple lapses in memories, understanding or even vocabulary. It’s been slow going for her as she does as much as she can while still raising three children, making a living and sometimes just making herself get out of bed. In January 2018, she will begin the nursing program at a local community college to become an RN and I am thrilled for her. Over the last few years she struggled with finding her path that will allow her to provide the support to others that she received through her diagnosis and treatment.
“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 doesn’t pass judgment on me, supports me in all I choose to do and doesn’t mince her words when talking to me. She is straightforward and always believes I can achieve whatever it is I choose to do. 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. While she may be grateful for the support and strength I was able to give her during such a difficult time, she showed me just how unbelievably strong she is and that together we can get through anything. Our relationship has come full circle: From those two little girls who didn’t see eye-to-eye about anything to two women who have grown to admire each other for what they’ve gone through together.
*Excerpts taken from a descriptive essay written by my sister for a class she took in 2012.
Presented by: Tamara Martin
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