November is National Family Caregivers Month, and we’re marking it with a special blog post by Lynn Folkman, our community engagement manager. Lynn writes about her sister, Deb, who offered tremendous love and support to Lynn throughout her experience with breast cancer.
My sister and I were standing near the finish line for the Philadelphia Marathon this past weekend. We were eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of my nephew and his fiancé so we could cheer and support them as they ran. While waiting to see them pass by, I enthusiastically cheered and clapped for all those running the marathon. I was overwhelmed at the number of all of those present showing support to those they love. With my sister by my side, I thought that she should be cheered for in the same manner as my caregiver.
Let me start by saying, I love my sister Deb. She is quite reserved and is one who does not like being in the spotlight. She has one of the biggest hearts and is one of the most giving and caring individuals I know. I have thanked her many times in a variety of ways to acknowledge her support during my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment; yet, I don’t think she fully understands the enormous positive impact that her caregiving had on my healing.
My sister and I were always close. During the time we shared as co-caregivers for my mom, who had laryngeal cancer, our bond became that much stronger. Two months after my mother passed away, I had my annual mammogram. Two weeks after the results of my normal mammogram, I had a pain underneath my arm. Although my sister is no longer a practicing nurse, I asked her opinion. She encouraged me to go to the doctor for more information. The initial doctors visit led me first to an x-ray and then to an ultrasound, which was suspicious, and then on to a needle/core biopsy. My sister insisted on coming with me to the biopsy, and so her journey of being my caregiver began. I waited a few weeks for the biopsy results, but quite honestly after I heard the doctor say that 90 percent of these are benign, the thought of cancer left my mind. I was about to leave for a business trip for Miami when I received the call at work about my breast cancer diagnosis. Stunned and shocked, I hung up the phone and immediately called my sister. Her husband answered the phone and I managed to utter Deb’s name. He could tell that I was upset and my sister quickly picked up the phone. I was desperately trying to breathe, I gasped to find my voice to utter actual words, but ultimately found myself unable to speak. However, no words were required, the silence mixed with sobbing said it all – she understood, I had breast cancer.
We were both still in the process of mourning the loss of our mother. Never for a moment were either of us prepared for the fact that our relationship had changed in an instant. Stepping into a caregiver role for someone that you love, you suddenly find that your relationship abruptly morphs and changes in ways you had not imagined. It is confusing and jolting – are you my sister, my friend, my nurse, my mother? The roles of the relationship become jumbled and muddy as it quickly transformed into something not at all familiar and unrecognizable from what you once knew. From that moment on, my sister went into action with her giving spirit and loving nature. She dived into the role of caregiver and never looked back or gave it a second thought. She selflessly stepped in and did whatever needed to be done.
My sister became my “go-to” person for every pain, every question; to talk to, to laugh with and to cry with. She was my guide along this unexpected cancer journey. She stayed with me at my house, slept in my bed, made me meals. It was my sister and her lavender three-ring binder that was with me at every appointment, every test and every procedure. I would ask her questions about things I thought I heard, or what I thought they said, and she would refer back to her detailed notes and quickly make sense of the situation where none seemed to exist. She nourished my body, mind and spirit by being the person I could count on for everything during an extremely vulnerable time.
I share with you an entry in my journal which says it best. This was dated one year from my mother’s passing:
Deb is wonderful, she has been with me through every step . . . I can’t imagine doing this alone, without her. She has become my center, I am so grateful for her and I am so fortunate . . .Mom, you would be so proud of her.
I remember going to treatments with my sister, and after the combination of my pre-chemotherapy regime was administered, I would turn to her, gaze into her eyes and say, “I love you so much Deb.” I wanted her to know, to see and to feel how truly grateful and thankful I was to have her by my side. Having her unconditional love and support allowed me to focus on getting through treatment day by day, moment by moment. Caregivers are the silent heroes, they are the ones who give of themselves tirelessly by encouraging and supporting those that they love. They do all this while trying to maintain balance in the rest of their lives.
How fitting that National Caregiver Month is the same time of the year as Thanksgiving, a holiday that encourages us to ask the question, what are you thankful for? I often say that being a caregiver is one of the most rewarding experiences and one of the hardest things I have ever done. To give to another unconditionally without any expectations is the purest form of love and the greatest gift that you can give another. It can never be said too often, so go ahead, cheer, hug or just thank your caregiver and let them know how much you appreciate their love and support. I am thankful for all the caregivers who do exactly that, especially my sister Deb.