surviving after cancer--my bother's story

This past weekend my brother, 26 years old and brain cancer survivor, participated in a local Relay for Life event.  Cancer has been a part of everyone’s life, but, like most of you I’d assume, I have no first-hand experience with Cancer.  However, being near someone, especially someone young, who has dealt with Cancer and who has survived, I’ve stumbled upon an important truth.

Of course each person, each diagnosis,  and each journey is different, but sometimes, the hard part is not surviving Cancer–It’s surviving after Cancer.

While my brother was sick , and he was quite sick, we saw being cancer-free as the end of the road.  That once he beat cancer it would be back to life as usual.

But, it’s been 5 years now and we are all still coming to terms with the fact that the journey is not over–and John will never be able to be who he was before cancer.  In fact, what has followed cancer has been harder much than the actual illness.

Here is my brother’s story.

It was the summer after his sophomore year of college.  Suddenly his vision was screwy and he was incredibly tired.  Being the, ah, less than empathetic older sister, I slapped him on the back of the head and told him to stop being so lazy.

And then they found the tumor, on Father’s Day.  At the time he was only 20.

What followed was a blur of different hospital rooms, doctors and opinions.

It took weeks to diagnose and they were only able to diagnose this tumor as Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma after a devastating biopsy my brother is still dealing with the physical side-effects of today.

After the diagnosis came treatments–aggressive Chemo that didn’t work.  Another Chemo.  Full brain radiation and finally stem-cell replacement chemo.


Through this all–the diagnosing, the treatments–my brother and my family were surrounded and supported by an amazing community of friends and family.  People set up 24-hour prayer chains for him.  He was the first intention for anyone that knew him, or knew one of us, here and around the world.  He traveled to Lourdes, France to bathe in the waters Our Lady showed to St. Bernadette.  He was anointed and blessed and kissed and held tight.

Cancer took a year of his life, his hair, his athleticism, but it didn’t take his life.  And, after standing at the brink and facing death, this 20 year old college sophomore found God, found his faith and surrendered.

In the end he survived.  He beat cancer and he had found God!  The scans were clean and, we all thought, we would have our old John back–only change was that he was now in love with the Lord.

But that’s not quite how it went.

And we were all surprised.

After all, he lived.  He lived when so many others, just as sick as he was, didn’t.

For all of us that had stood near him and watched him battle cancer we couldn’t help saying, “You survived!  You’re alive–what are you going to do now?”

It’s funny how that didn’t, at the time, sound like a loaded, heavy question.  But that’s exactly what it is.  To the survivor it easily sounds like, “So, you lived when others died.  What amazing things are you going to do with this life that God decided to spare?”

No pressure.

Just a few months after he was given the all clear my brother returned to college and finished his degree, all the while feeling that year he’d lost and the friends that had moved on without him.

And he graduated.  But, then what?

A year in the seminary.

A few months at a job in a small town.

A few months selling trucks.

He’s 26 now and I think even he would agree he’s still searching, still trying to let go of the John before cancer, and learning to accept the John after cancer.  In recent months he has made some important changes, for which I am very of him, and I really hope and pray that peace, understanding and acceptance are just around the corner for him.  I really pray that soon we can look at this cancer journey as over.

But, chances are the ghost of cancer will continue to haunt my brother.

surviving cancer

All of this–the illness and the aftermath–is my brother’s story and something only he has a right to tell.  I am being so bold as to share it here because I have become so frustrated with the way our world faces cancer and other major illnesses–That once the body is cured the story is over.

Anyone who has even been close to someone who survived a major illness has to agree with me.  The prayers and support and love should not end when the illness disappears.

To be honest I am writing this post as much to myself as I am to the world at large.  I, very likely, have put more pressure on my brother to move on, get over it and let go of cancer than anyone else.  When you love someone as much as you love a spouse or a sibling there is a piece of you that is broken when they are hurting.

Maybe it’s because he’s my little brother, my only brother and the product of 4 older sisters, but John has always been our golden boy.  He is young enough that I remember when he was born.  I remember giving him bottles and teaching him to walk and talk and smile.

After college I returned to my hometown as a teacher and actually had him in class.  Even then, he seemed golden.

But after cancer that has changed.  The weight of what he experienced and loss when he was sick is visible in my brother.  That shiny silliness I knew as my brother is not quite there anymore.

At times I’ve found it easier to pull away from my brother in these post-cancer years.  This boy I adored so much as a kid that I willingly shared a room with him was just not quite what we all remembered.  It was easier, even for me, to just not deal with it.

But this was a mistake.  And quite selfish.

I am trying very hard right now to make a change in my relationship with my brother, to re-invest in him and to get to know who he is now, because the old John is gone.  He’s just gone.

But this new John is still my brother in every way.  We all change and mature over time, it just happened for him all in one terrible year.

If there is a person in your life walking the difficult path after cancer, or any major illness, please reach out to them and cut the pressure.  Things like survivor’s remorse are real.  I know it doesn’t make sense that someone would suffer with depression after beating an illness (they should be elated, right?) but they do and if you cool it the expectations, it’s easy to see why.

Thank God my brother survived.  I can’t imagine the grief I would be swimming in, even 5 years later, if my brother hadn’t come out on the other end of this.  I can’t even go there.

He is alive.  And I am determined to celebrate his life, his new life, with him, instead of mourning the old John that cancer took.

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