As an older sister, I spent a lot of time doing things first. I got to repaint my bedroom, do gymnastics, and have a cell phone first. I started waitressing, learned how to drive, and graduated high school before my sister did. I had a lot of experience with leading the charge and then sharing my wisdom – whether she actually wanted to hear it or not. This was a part of my identity for many years: the older sibling taking the first step, looking back, and either making sure Danielle was coming too or protecting her from something I knew she wouldn’t like.
Of course, as we got older, the idea of “firsts” became less important to how I viewed my relationship with Danielle. It started to feel more like we were living our lives together, instead of slightly staggered. We talked about shared experiences like moving to New York City, stressful days at work, living with roommates, and finding new bars to try.
But that didn’t mean that being Danielle’s protector whenever possible became less important. I spent so many years in that role that it’s an essential part of who I am and who she is to me. And that meant that when we found out she had breast cancer, I wanted nothing more than to go back to being the older sister who had the ability to step in front of something new, and scary, and tackle it before it could even get close to Danielle.
Unfortunately, a cancer diagnosis doesn’t come with any options for control or agency. Instead, there was a deep feeling of helplessness that came along with that news. I would have given anything to protect her from it, but I had no control over genetics, a Russian roulette of biology that dropped this into Danielle’s lap and not mine. As an older sister who took pride in helping to solve a problem or find an answer, it was devastating to feel so strongly that I wanted to fix this yet know at the same time that it was impossible to do so.
It was also tricky in the beginning to understand how I fit into her journey. Who was I to ask about treatment decisions, or what she felt about the next type of chemo and hair loss? Danielle has a husband who helped with most things, and a mother who led the charge to tackle many others. Those roles seemed clear to me and left me feeling like I wasn’t sure what ground I should cover. We spent 18 years growing up in the same house but now we lived in two different states, and I wasn’t there in person for her daily struggles anymore.
Therefore it felt difficult to be the big sister at times: I didn’t have any lessons to share, and I couldn’t take any of the burden to make hers lighter. So what could I do for her? What space was I filling?
It was hard to work through those questions and realize there was no easy answer. I continued to feel helpless when I didn’t have any concrete help to give, but even as I struggled with those feelings, I still found ways I could help as a sibling.
One important thing for me was to simply be present. Maybe that meant being at Danielle’s apartment for an evening or my parent’s home for a weekend visit. Or more often it meant being on the phone for a call or video chat. No matter what, it was important to always say “of course” when she asked if I was around. I could offer to show up in person and share physical space, or I could show up in conversation and share emotional space. Both were important in their own ways.
I could also help by being there for some conversations Danielle wanted to have, instead of conversations that she needed to have. Was it more enjoyable for her to hear about my dating life or new apartment? Did she prefer to talk about dinner or the upcoming holidays? Sticking to those topics instead of focusing on my own sadness or questions meant I could help her think about things that weren’t related to her cancer: if she didn’t want to talk about her treatment schedule or side effects for the tenth time that day, we could talk about anything else instead.
As Danielle’s sister I also ended up being a helpful communicator. Since I knew so many of her friends and had various forms of contact info for them, I was able to reach out with updates and details about how to help. I shared the plan for a collection of get-well cards we were gathering and helped put together a list of names for a scrapbook. And when the breast cancer walk in Central Park happened shortly after Danielle’s diagnosis, I made sure they knew my family’s event and fundraising information when it would’ve been exhausting for her to deal with those little details herself.
And I always tried to have something positive to share with Danielle. It was easy to share our sorrows or anxieties, and it was important that we were able to do that. But laughter and lighthearted stories have always been a part of our relationship, and I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel like the sadness of her cancer was so overwhelming that there wasn’t any room for those things anymore.
One day, when Danielle was several months into treatment and as comfortable as she could be with her current routines, I sent her a card in the mail. It simply said, Hello. I heard your hair looks beautiful today. I had discovered it just a week after she was diagnosed, and I bought it on the spot knowing that one day, she’d find it funny. And she did – she cracked up when it surprised her in the mail, well after she had lost all her hair.
Finally, and perhaps the most important way for me to help as a big sister, was this: expressing my pride.
Seeing Danielle grow up made me proud of her many times, for many reasons. But watching her conquer breast cancer blew everything else out of the water. For months she did something amazing, from putting herself through a new treatment, to working through physical or emotional side effects, and everything in between. Even though those amazing things were happening in a truly terrible situation, she was still doing something remarkable. And it was essential to me that she knew that.
I’m so proud of how Danielle faced challenges head-on and the strength she showed from start to finish. I’m proud of the way she chose to share her story, how she got out of bed each day and took a step forward, and how she put herself first. I’m also proud of how she opened her life to a support system of love and encouragement during such a scary and isolating period.
As an older sibling, that was such a meaningful thing to share with someone who was becoming a cancer survivor in addition to being my little sister. I needed to accept that I couldn’t give her solutions or share burdens, and that I couldn’t help the way I most wanted to. But I could express all my love, and all my pride.
From big sister to little, I love her, and nothing could make me prouder. I've told her before and I’ll always be here to tell her a hundred times more.