A Loving Family Keeps Siblings Together As Their Sister Goes Through Cancer Treatments

When asked to write about how I helped my family cope with our daughter Marit’s cancer diagnosis and health journey, my first thought was this:  “I did nothing for anyone else in my family. I felt like I was consumed with caring for Marit, and forgot the other children.” Upon sharing these thoughts with my husband, he reminded me that I did do some intangible things, though it was hard to initially acknowledge them.

I still feel guilt about not being there as much for the older kids, particularly during the treatment phase. I admit I was consumed both mentally and physically by caring for Marit during her treatment. I was fortunate to have both our loving nanny and my husband, who helped manage and care for the older three children during this time.

Health Journey Became a Family Affair

After the dreaded diagnosis, one of the first meaningful phrases I heard was this:  “Cancer doesn’t just affect the person who has it – it affects an entire family.” Believing in that statement meant that Marit’s journey would be a family affair.

I believed that a cohesive, loving family would band together and support each other, come hell or high water. And I perceived Marit’s cancer diagnosis and ensuing journey as both hell and high water!

We decided, before leaving our local hospital after the brain tumor resection, to seek treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. It was a long way from home.

Staying Together Was Important

I now know most families send only one parent with the ill child to St. Jude for treatment. I believed it would be ideal if we could all be in Memphis to support Marit on her arduous journey. I truly did not want one faction in the family one place and another faction elsewhere. If the family was to be split during this difficult time, it seemed like the perfect setup for a major family schism.

I’m sure most families would ideally choose to be together. But often, one parent must stay home and continue working. We were fortunate to have the resources to move en mass temporarily and be able to pay for the additional housing we needed. I know this was a luxury most families at St. Jude could not afford, but I desperately wish everyone had the capacity to be together during a cancer treatment if they wanted to.

Marit had the closest people in her life – her immediate family and nanny – at her side during treatment to love and support her. Not only was their being near Marit good for her; I believed that having her siblings there also potentially benefited them. They were exposed to life beyond our Midwestern suburbia, introduced to culturally diverse people and different lifestyles, and hopefully gained compassion and empathy for people with disabilities.

A Learning Experience For Our Other Children

The older three children observed Marit’s medical treatment and occasionally they even participated in various aspects of her treatment and care. They wore masks, gowns and gloves when needed. They frequently slept over in the ancillary room during chemotherapy.

I believe their exposure and participation desensitized them, at least somewhat, to what can often be the scariness of the medical world. I hope their experience will make them more compassionate and understanding towards people who may be less fortunate than they are.

What Do You Think?

Is it better to shelter family members from the realities of a loved one’s medical treatment, or to fully engage them in the health journey? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – and if you’ve had similar experiences, how you’ve handled them. Please share with us below.

Berit Kyllo Francis, a registered nurse, lives in Orono Minnesota with her husband and four children. Berit is a member of the CaringBridge Advisory Council and is highly involved as a volunteer with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Berit also enjoys writing, running, golf, yoga, fashion and spending time with friends.

  • Cheryl Mayberry

    I don’t think your family should be sheltered but only fully engage them IF they are comfortable. Sometimes just being present while a treatment is occurring is enough to help them see and know what can and does happen without being fearful of it. This also gives them time to get to know themselves and realize what they can handle. The biggest message they should get is that being there in any capacity is beneficial to the patient’s well being.