I always dreamed of following in my sister Geeta's footsteps, but never quite in such unexpected ways. The first serendipitous occasion happened when we married men with the same last name, I four years after she. Coincidence, yes, but I like to think of it as an assertion of how close we are. It's a happy thought: the two of us marching through life in tandem, making perfectly clear to the world that we are sisters, and that not even marriage has changed that.
In October 2006, my sister and I proved our bond yet again. After a completely clean mammogram and no family history, I, at age 46, found a lump in my left breast that a subsequent biopsy proved was malignant. I called to tell Geeta immediately, and after she stopped crying, she proceeded to clear her very busy professional calendar to fly out to be with my husband and me through my chemotherapy and radiation. I was grateful for her support through what I had been told would be a difficult time, but most of all I was looking forward to spending time with her. Visions of all the things we would do while she was in my home danced like sugarplums in my head! The chick flicks we would rent and watch late into the night! The dishes our mother had perfected that we would cook together in sisterly bliss! The endless chats! The list was long, but for the moment, I had other, more immediate concerns: I could not ignore the steady thrum in the back of my head that told me that Geeta, too, needed to have her mammogram results double-checked.
At my urging, Geeta did a self-exam and found a lump in her breast–a lump that was larger than mine and just as malignant. That I was the canary in the coal mine was no comfort in the days of panic that followed; I experienced every emotion possible at the news that Geeta now had cancer too. Her diagnosis was simply too much, gratuitous even. How could it be that in this cosmic game of tag that both she and I had forgotten to jump out of the way in time? (Note to self, and with apologies to Ogden Nash, When called by cancer/Don't answer!) I felt suffocated and distracted by the constant tom-tom of the inexorable truth playing in my head. I was very angry too. How could life make Geeta so ill and then tie my hands such that I was unable to fly out to be with her during her surgery and chemotherapy? Like the baby sister I am, I even felt outraged! How could she be ill exactly when I needed her most? Hadn't our mother taught us about taking turns? Why did she have to get the same attention-getting, copycat illness just as soon as I did? Why couldn't she just fly out and take care of me like she'd promised?
People have always told me that I am a good and brave patient, but I am not brave in the least when it comes to the people I love being unwell. I can tell you without the slightest trace of selflessness that I far prefer being ill and in pain myself. It pales in comparison to the pain and suffering of my loved ones.
So, on opposite coasts and on an almost identical schedule, Geeta and I each had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation at roughly the same time, which deepened our already uncanny empathy for one another. We spoke to each other every day during treatment, and I was even lucky enough to fly to her side to help her after her lumpectomy, then return home to begin radiation myself.
Who else could I share tips about wigs with? Who else could understand that even though nothing tasted good during chemotherapy, I was as hungry as a teenage boy in the middle of a growth spurt? Who else could I call when my scalp started prickling painfully, followed by my hair falling out in fistfuls? One upside of our illness-in-tandem phenomenon was the happy cross-pollination of friends. All of my friends were now hers and vice versa, on the grounds that anyone who cared deeply about me had to love her too–it was the price of admission into friendship with either one of us. I received cards, e-mails, even gifts from friends of hers I barely knew, and she too was the happy recipient of phone calls and concerned inquiries from my friends. Although people frequently feel helpless in the face of a friend's illness, every kind word, card, gift, message, prayer, and wish helped us immeasurably. I visualized each good thought from our collective pool of friends as turning off the rampaging cancer cells, or at least taming them, muting them, quite literally rendering them benign.
Don't get me wrong–I'm no Pollyanna who sees the good in every lousy card that I am dealt. Though Geeta and I have been cancer-free for four years now, I would much prefer never to have had cancer in the first place. But for me, what made the journey worthwhile is the deepening of my relationships with my husband, daughter, extended family and friends, and of course, with my sister Geeta.