When My Brother Got Cancer

Last spring, my brother got diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer exactly two weeks after I fractured my ankle. I was lying in bed in a heavy Percocet haze when my sister-in-law called me — I think she was trying to reach my mom — and told me he was in the ER and that (what else) they didn’t know anything yet. Instant freakout. But, you know, maybe he’ll be fine, maybe it’s stress, food poisoning, he’s been looking tired for days, we’ll see. We’ll see.

Turns out he wasn’t fine. He had a 9-centimeter tumor in his large intestine which apparently had been growing for years. Put your hands together and approximate how big that is. Imagine it nestled in your insides like that hard white phlegm in your throat you can’t cough up or swallow. Your brother has cancer. What the hell are you talking about, no he doesn’t. He’s only 37. He quit smoking years ago. He shops at Whole Foods for Christ’s sake. He can’t possibly. But he can. And he does.

I’ll never shake the feeling of finding out, the bitter nothingness of a mere possibility morphing into hard fact. Rilke wrote that we all carry our death inside of us, that it grows, develops, changes with us until it’s strong enough to take hold. My brother’s death was unfurling like a dragon, fast and aggressive. It was coded in his DNA. The cold fury of that, of my own immobilized helplessness, rose up in my throat with the sudden insistence of water breaking through a dam. I started to scream.

There were so many words, too many words. White cells. Transfusion. Hemoglobin. Malignant. Surgery. Blood loss. Genetic. Chance. Chemo. Mutations. So many meaningless words. Just the words are enough to make you sick.

All the memories I had of him came flooding back with sudden clarity and it was both sad and amusing because we’re 15 years apart and there simply aren’t that many. One where he adopted a German shepherd from the pound and gave him to me for Christmas when I was 6. One where he took me to his favorite coffeehouse in DC, I was 15 and he made fun of my eyeliner. And one where he grinned broadly, endlessly, at his wedding as I recited a love poem and my stilettos sunk slowly into the wet grass. The sudden realization of potentially losing someone I hadn’t fully gotten to know, yet loved more than anything, slowed my heart nearly still.

My mom took me to visit him in the hospital a few days after his surgery, me in a wheelchair with my big awkward cast that she kept running into things — walls, elevator doors – because the chair was too big for her to maneuver. Twelfth floor, cancer ward. She wheeled me in as I rehearsed don’t cry, no matter what you do don’t cry over and over. Of course I took one look at him and burst into tears.

“Wanna see my scar?” He grinned and lifted up his hospital gown. “Cool, huh?”

It was gnarly and purple and veined with white stitches, bisecting his stomach weirdly. I emitted some kind of weak laugh-sob.

“Wanna see mine?” I lifted my leg but the sheer weight of the cast sent it crashing to the floor. We laughed and it was so hilarious and tragic and stupid that my laughing turned to crying all over again. He told me to man up and reached for my hand. I felt the warmth in his fingers and sobbed even harder. Mom just stood there and looked at her busted children, shaking her head with a weird half smile.

It took me two months to start walking again, slowly and not well, but walking nonetheless. I had a job and summer classes to return to but I babysat his daughters when I could and drove him to his chemo treatments, where he sat and thumbed casually through The Economist as I looked at the other patients’ faces and tried not to shake. We never talked about it. My brother would still rather drink rocket coolant than admit he’s scared.

I’ll admit it, I get scared. Sometimes I’ll think about the possibility of losing him, of something else going wrong, and freeze for a millisecond. And then I realize it’s stupid to do that — we never really know when we’re going to lose anyone, duh, so we have to make the most of the time we have while they’re here. We can’t wait until something horrible happens before we tell the people we love that we love them. All that inspirational live-in-the-moment BS, we need to start acting on it — we aren’t guaranteed a future but there’s always a present. TC mark

More From Thought Catalog

  • http://www.facebook.com/careuhsellxo Angela Joyce

    Damn…this hit home really hard.

  • Erin

    The worst nightmare I’ve ever had was one where I dreamed my brother had terminal cancer and actually died before I woke up. It made me realize how much I actually love that little terror.

  • Megsweetie


  • E.

    I was terrified to read this because I still get nauseous when I remember my brother having cancer. Turns out, this story didn’t really remind me of it at all- my brother was younger, he had leukemia, I acted like a complete lunatic throughout the entire thing, adding a layer of guilt on top of all the shittiness. I can’t write about it though, I can barely think about it, so thank you Mila for sharing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1490310128 Victoria Bachan

    My grandpa lived three years with stage 4 colon cancer before he died. hardest thing to go through. you’re strong to be able to write about this! its tough. cancer is tough to deal with, even if you don’t have it. no one wants to see their loved ones go through that.

  • http://robvincent.net Rob T Firefly

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  • Spykenij

    Choked me up…totally choked me up.  You owe me a comforting hug for making me wanna cry and if this story has any truth to it, I will gladly return it to you.

    • http://twitter.com/philosolaktor Lakshitha

      Seconded. I’m all chokey now. 

  • http://twitter.com/philosolaktor Lakshitha

    I love the “Mom just stared at her busted children, shaking her head with a weird half smile.” Love. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/lilyjandro Lily Diana

    All choked up now. All the best to your family! 

  • Brin

    Love this! What a terrible situation you’ve captured through your writing in the most purest, human form.Very beautiful and moving.
    Just wondering, can anyone tell me where the Rilke quote is from? It really resonated with me, and I can’t seem to find it anywhere..

    “Rilke wrote that we all carry our death inside of us, that it grows, develops, changes with us until it’s strong enough to take hold. ”

    • Mila Jaroniec

      Thank you for the sweet comment. My Rilke reference (full name Rainer Maria Rilke) came from his only novel, ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’. He has a whole passage in there about the qualia of death. Hope that helps!

  • Cosmicircle

     Made me think of the time when my brother nearly died. I know exactly what you mean.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luan-Evert/100000983916816 Luan Evert

    Recently got diagnosed. No one knows. I needed to read this so i can see it from your view point. Now i’m not so sure witholding the information is the right thing. Thank you….

  • Anonymous

    My grandma was diagnosed of cancer recently, it was the weirdest feeling to find out that all the articles I have read about cancer can actually be related to me now.
    I am in Holland and she is in Georgia and I can’t go cuz of my exams. When I will all I will do is love her.Great article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001079660479 Bilqis Ibrahim

    Hey, I really hope your brother is well now, or as well as he can be going through treatment and all. I found out that my cousin had cancer a week before she died from it, we don’t know why she kept it from everyone. I think she just accepted that it was her time and didn’t want the whole big scenes of drama and scare. She was such a strong woman. 

    All the best, glad I read this. 

  • Eva

    This is strangely accurate to my current situation,  my older sister recently got diagnosed stage three colon cancer as well, only she’s 17. Regardless, I wish nothing but the best for your brother <3
    This really helped me a lot. Love  and light <3

  • guest

    i recently found out that my step-dad has leukemia. i live on the other side of the world from my family and had to deal with the fall-out of this news through text message, phone calls and skype conversations. i kept repeating the words to myself “he has leukemia” as if somehow if i said it enough times it might fit, but every single thought was like a punch in the stomach. months later, i’m still absolutely terrified but this is our reality now. i hope you guys get through it. thank you for sharing your story.

  • Bernard Elfstrom

    Colon cancer can be prevented by having a healthy diet and taking lots of antioxidants. `”””:Till next time

blog comments powered by Disqus