Friday, June 22, 2012

A Sister’s Journey: Cancer Treatment

Caroline (left) with her sister.
Cassandra Hogue is a guest contributor to the Focus On Cancer blog. Cassandra’s sister was treated at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. Through her sister’s surgery, several rounds of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and most recently, proton therapy, Cassandra has been a solid source of support and comfort for her sister.

My sister Caroline began cancer treatment at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, two months after she was diagnosed with cancer. Those were two of the longest, strangest and scariest months I can remember.

Her doctors explained thoroughly and patiently that mapping studies were needed before radiation therapy could begin, surgery was needed to place the chemotherapy port, and even more diagnostic tests had to be done before anything else could be scheduled.

When her treatment finally began, I was simultaneously relieved and worried. This was totally foreign territory shadowed by my own fear and every horror story I’ve heard about cancer treatment.

How sick would she be? Would she need blood transfusions? What constituted an “emergency?” All of the staff, especially her physicians, gave so much of their time to answer every “what if” question that we could ask.

And so began six weeks of daily trips to Penn, and weekly visits by nurses to change the chemo infusion pack that Caroline had to wear 24 hours a day. My constant anxiety slowly diminished, and my resilience slowly grew. I focused on my Buddhist meditation practice with new fervor, now suddenly realizing the truth of impermanence.

When Caroline began radiation treatment, the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine at Penn had just opened. We became friendly with the receptionists, the parking lot attendants, and of course her oncology and radiation technicians and nurses. In a very real way, having a normal conversation with kind and considerate people made it so much easier.

Caroline tolerated the chemotherapy and radiation treatments incredibly well. She was even allowed a single weekly glass of wine, that we often enjoyed together Friday nights outside on the deck.

Major life-changing surgery was ahead for Caroline. But for now, she was feeling well. She even accompanied me to Barcelona on a business trip. As I worked, she visited art museums, strolled the Ramblas, and sipped espresso in outdoor cafes in the September sunshine. She seemed to enjoy every moment with a quiet strength.

A week before her surgery was scheduled, she and I planted dozens of tulip bulbs, in shades of wine red and golden yellow. We didn’t talk much that day; we had had many amazing talks over the weeks of her treatment. We had spoken of so many things that only sisters can share: childhood memories, adult disappointments, accomplishments and happiness.

We planted those 50 bulbs on a chilly day in October, trusting that spring would come.

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