When Olivia asked for “Friends of the Sarcastic Sarcoma” to write a blog post, I was happy to volunteer – but when push came to shove, I was a delinquent deadbeat who kept pushing off writing. Olivia’s blog is such a huge part of her life – and sharing her story with everyone has brought her so much comfort, laughter, and joy. Why would anyone want to hear from me? I’m sure as heck not as funny as she is….
But I guess I have a story to tell too… as does every family member of a cancer patient. Sure, we might not have to physically endure the chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, clinical trials, inpatient hospital stays, doctors’ appointments, and so much more; but we sure do have to emotionally endure it and support our loved one going through it. It’s not the same experience in any way, shape or form; but watching your family member go through hell is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
My name is Sam – but most people know me as Olivia’s sister. I’ve spent the past 5+ years watching my best friend and sister battle “The Big C.” She’s the one undergoing treatment, but my mom and I and our support team of friends and family have been right there with her through it all. We’ve learned a lot over the past several years– and while I could sit and wallow in how challenging this has been for all of us, I thought I’d make this blog post about some of the lessons I’ve learned from Olivia’s cancer. While these lessons aren’t universal, they could provide some insights to people going through similar situations. So here it goes, eight lessons I’ve learned from being the older sister of a cancer patient:
8. People will say stupid shit to you all the time about cancer, but take what you like about what they said and leave the rest behind – Just because your aunt’s cousin or second grade teacher (or insert any other person you know) had cancer and s/he went on X, Y, or Z treatment plan, that doesn’t mean they had the same thing going on as your loved one. I know that a lot of the time people just don’t know what to say, so they try to share their experience with you – but that doesn’t mean that their story is your story (or vice versa). I once had someone tell me that Olivia would be fine during treatment because their dog had cancer and went on chemo too ---- very different story, but I knew that person was uncomfortable and was just trying to show some love. Take comfort in knowing they are just trying to reach out – take the good parts in what they’ve said, and leave the rest behind.
7. Try not to tell people how “great” they look (or how shitty they look too) – You never know what kind of treatment plan a cancer patient is on – sometimes they might have hair, sometimes they might not, sometimes they might look like they’re really fit and healthy, other times they might look like they’re about to throw up. I’ve learned to stop telling people how they look – trust me, they know how they look. Someone who looks healthy on the outside could be sick on the inside. Someone who looks really sick could be on the path to recovery. This goes for family members, friends, and other caretakers too – Please, stop telling me I look tired. I know I look tired! I’d prefer that you not make any reference to my appearance – unless, I’m trailing a piece of toilet paper on my foot as I’m walking out of the bathroom. Please tell me when that happens; I don’t want to look ridiculous. Instead of telling someone how I think they look, I ask them how they are doing. It’s a simple switch in words – a reminder to not judge the book by the cover.
6. Get rid of dead weight – I’ve learned a lot about people while Olivia’s been sick. I’ve had a lot of friends who have come out to support my family – but I’ve also been alienated by others. Sure, some people don’t know what to say – I hold compassion for those people – but many others will just fade off into the sunset. I learned quickly that true friends are those who stick by your side in good and bad. They’re the ones who understand when I have a bad day, when I need to cancel plans, or when I just need to get out and do something fun to distract myself. Why spend your time worrying about people who aren’t going to be there for you? Get rid of the dead weight and focus on those who love you and support you. This is really hard to do, but I’m working towards it.
5. Focus on the positive things that have happened because of cancer – You can really find the most beautiful things in the strangest of places… including when a family member or friend gets cancer. My life has been enriched because of the people we’ve met over the past 5+ years. From meeting Olivia’s unbelievably supportive medical team to getting involved in the Ulman Foundation, my family has met so many phenomenal people that we would have never met had Olivia not had cancer. I would have never joined the Ulman Key to Keys ride and rode my bicycle from Baltimore to Key West or participated in the 24 Foundation’s cycling events. I would have never volunteered with Ulman’s Cancer to 5K program. I would have never made some of the amazing friends who also have walked down this same road. Those friends have truly become family – and I don’t know what I would do without them. What’s most remarkable is that I would never have known these people or done these amazing things had Olivia not been diagnosed with cancer.
4. Set your priorities and stick to them – My family is my top priority. If something happens and Olivia needs me, you bet I’m going to drop what I’m doing to be there for her. I’d do the same for my husband and my mom. I’ve had many times when people voiced their opinions against this. I’ve had people tell me that other things were more important than being there to support my sister and family. In those moments, I’ve felt hurt and mad – but it didn’t change my actions. I had and will always continue to do what’s right for me – and for me, being there for my loved ones will always take priority. If people can’t understand that, that’s ok – they might not understand what’s going on or have the same priorities as me. I do what’s right by my standards – not theirs. Sure, every action has consequences – but I’ve found that if I always stick to my priorities, everything works out in the end.
3. Don’t hold your emotions in, talk about them – During the safety briefing before an airplane flight, you are instructed to put on your life vest first before assisting someone with their vest. The same adage applies to being a family member or friend. You have to be able to take care of yourself and your emotions so you can support your loved ones. Find someone you trust – or multiple people you trust – and talk to them about what’s going on in your life. Getting those thoughts out of your head is cathartic. Reasoning things out with someone else can provide clarity. Your mental health is extremely important. If you are able, find a professional to talk to; see them as often as you can. Don’t get lost in sadness or worry, acknowledge them and try to focus on the joy instead. The famous rocket scientist Robert Goddard was once quoted as saying “Just remember - when you think all is lost, the future remains.” I try to remember this often - Focus on what tomorrow brings and the joy that it will contain no matter what challenges you face.
2. Don’t view anyone differently just because they have cancer – Olivia’s been sick for a while, but being sick does not define who she is. She’s an equestrian, writer/comedian, educator, and so much more. I have not changed the way I view my sister just because she has cancer. I treat her the way I always have. Sure, there are days where she’s sick and I have to take that into account – it’s not like the two of us are signing up for a half-marathon right now – but that doesn’t mean I treat her any different from any other person in their late 20s. Lots of people have changed how they look at her – they’ll pity her or think that they can’t include her in things. To those people, please stop doing that. Invite her to do things with you. If she’s not feeling well, she won’t go – just stop assuming that she can’t do something because of cancer. Treat her the same as you would if you didn’t know she was sick. Just realize, she has a lot of shit going on and sometimes will say no. Just be her friend and stand by her side in good and bad. The same goes for other cancer patients – treat them just like you would anyone else and respect them as they go through this experience. Remember the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
1. Even if you aren’t the one with cancer, remember that you are important too - Just because everyone is focused on your loved one, that doesn’t mean you aren’t important. My sister has had cancer for 5+ years, and there have been numerous times where I’ve felt unimportant or that things in my life didn’t matter. It took me a long time to learn that just because Olivia has a lot going on, it doesn’t minimize my life experiences. I can support her while I live my life and work on the things I’ve wanted to do too. In doing so, I’m helping both of us – Olivia has told me to live my life to the fullest. I’ve had a lot of amazing things happen while Olivia has been sick – I got married, worked on and finished a PhD, and much more. Just as I’ve been by her side, she’s been by mine – and I’m so lucky that I have such a special relationship with my sister where we help each other through good times and bad. We’re both important.
These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years, and I’m sure that I’ll keep learning lessons as time moves on. Every life experience teaches you things. You might not have a loved one with cancer, but I bet that one of these lessons rings true with something you’ve gone through in your life. Focus on the positives, support the people around you, and never give up hope. Those of you who know me know that I have to end this post with another famous rocket scientist quote – so here it goes. I encourage you all to remember these words from Wernher von Braun when facing challenges in life – “I have learned to use the word “impossible” with the greatest caution.” Always have hope, and remember that nothing is impossible.
Sam with Olivia at the Southermost Point in Key West, FL at the completion of her Key to Keys trip in 2017
Sam graduated with her PhD in Systems Engineering from
George Washington University in May of 2018