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My Sister has Cancer. Now What?

My Sister has Cancer Now What Feature Image

Editor's Note: The following post is by Nicole Sheetz, who is part of Lilly's Clinical Design, Delivery and Analytics team, with nearly 20 years' experience in the pharmaceutical industry across a broad range of roles. She is, first, sister, mother, wife and daughter, and, second, clinical trial advocate and innovator.

The Dreaded Word: Cancer.

On Friday, May 23, 2014, I went to work, knocked off a little early to hang out with my 6 and 8-year-old, and made a simple dinner for my husband and me. After cleaning up and preparing for a busy Saturday of soccer and dance rehearsal, I sat down on the couch to sip wine and catch up on email. That’s when I read this email from my sister—my ONLY sibling and my BEST friend:

Last year this time - Perfectly normal mammogram.

Month ago-Felt a lump in my left breast during self-breast exam.

Two weeks ago-Scheduled my yearly physical and gynecological exam.

One week ago-Regular mammogram AND ultrasound of left breast lump. Questionable looking from ultrasound.

Today at 11:45-Biopsy of lump and discovery of more lumps in lymph nodes.

Today at 2:30-Call from doctor with results from pathologist. Definitely cancerous cells and concern of the rapidity of the growth of the tumor and its size (2 and 1/2-3 cm) in such a short period.

Will know by 5:00 today if I have an appointment with Medical Oncology group on Tuesday to discuss chemo then surgery or straight to surgery then chemo.

Doctor would like to get an opinion on whether I should get chemotherapy to reduce size before surgery. Not sure about anything further than this information. He says prognosis is good.

(Note: She sent this via email because she had both a 9 and 2-year-old, and she was not ready for them to know the situation by overhearing a phone conversation.)


We are not old. My sister was 41 when diagnosed and I was 37. We also have 765 miles between us—12 hours by car. She is a 5th grade teacher 20 years into her career, and I am a pharmacist working in clinical research at Lilly. I guess you could say that we are both trying to make this world a better place, whether through education or medicine.

I’m the baby and I owned that position in our little family unit. I was a whiney, needy child that craved attention and approval from my parents and my sister. Carrie was good to me, but she was also the only one that gave me the tough love that I needed to make it emotionally in college and eventually in the real world. She has guided me, provided advice, watched me fail and been the first to pick me back up more times than I care to share. Sadly, I can’t say that I’ve been that same person for her.

The Diagnosis

Cancer. I was stunned. Unable to speak. I sat on my couch, felt the room close in on me, and I sobbed. I mean sobbed. Carrie is the rock in our family. She’s the coordinator of family events, the “director” of covered dish dinners, and the master of calendaring and making lists. Her life is completely within her control. Until now.

The diagnosis? Stage IIIA triple negative breast cancer. I could go on and describe the blow-by-blow weeks and months that ensued, but most of you probably know the general drill—chemo, surgery, radiation.

After I got over the shock that Friday night and realized that she was not dead, I made a deal with my soul to drop everything to be there for Carrie. My husband was right there behind me, cheering me to do what I thought was best. I’m certain he knew that it was going to be hard on him but realized my sister (and I) needed this.

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Helping From Afar

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I finally feel like I can openly talk about a few things that my sister experienced and what it was like to try to be an empathetic caregiver from afar. I’ll be sharing at least two more blogs that are near and dear to my personal and professional life.

Long Distance Support: Technology Advances Make A Difference

In part two of this series, I’ll talk about how I supported my sister in-person and from afar. I spent nine weeks over the summer with my sister and then had to return home so that my kids could resume school for the fall. Technology helped to ease the difficult transition. I’ll share the various technology solutions we used to stay connected and to keep a feeling of closeness.

Considering A Clinical Trial

When it’s your sister and you work in clinical research, what questions do you ask and what do you recommend? My sister’s surgeon presented the option of a clinical trial to her. And so she called me, eager to discuss this new opportunity. I’ll talk about how we searched for and eventually found trial details, examined the informed consent, made a list of benefits and risks, and asked questions.

Share Your Experience

I hope you’ll find some comfort and maybe entertainment in these blogs. I also hope you learn something or feel compelled to share your own experiences or thoughts about breast cancer, technology’s place in supporting patients and caregivers, and some of the factors that people consider before clinical trial participation. It’s nice to know that other people are listening and that support and common experiences are out there.

Tell us about your experience by sharing with us on Twitter.

Blog post originally appeared on LillyPad.

Tags: Cancer, Patient Stories,

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