Column: Raging against cancer, crying for a sister

Liz McCluskey

Liz McCluskey

She never had a fighting chance.

My sister Liz found out in late July that she had cancer. The disease had attacked one lung, her brain and her pancreas.

She was angry and sad and scared, but she never once said, “Why me?” She never once cursed God. She cried, but she didn’t rage.

She left it to me to say, “Why you?” She left it to me to curse God and she left it to me to rage. And why not? She was my sister, and I loved her.

Everything went downhill so fast.

I went to visit her in early August. Liz wasn’t feeling well after her first chemo treatment. Her doctors said the poison affected her worse than it did most patients.

Indeed, Liz’s reaction was bad enough that she decided she was going to forgo further treatment and go into hospice care. We all thought that was a bad idea. We thought it was too soon to quit fighting.

Liz’s doctors agreed. They convinced her it was way too early for hospice. With treatment, she could live another 18 months.

So she decided to fight, but the war was over before she could prepare for a single battle.

Liz woke up on a hot August day less than five weeks after her initial diagnosis and couldn’t move her legs or control her arms. She couldn’t brush her teeth and food, when she could eat, was more likely to land on her lap than in her mouth.

The MRI showed the five lesions that were on her brain the week before had multiplied to 20.

And they were bleeding. The blood flowed into her spinal column, which caused the paralysis, depriving Liz of her ability to walk and talk.

Her doctors were no longer optimistic and Liz went into hospice care the last week of August. With her remaining family and her boyfriend Donn by her side, we heard Liz’s doctor tell her she would be dead in a few days. They would make her as comfortable as possible in the meantime.

“Thank you,” she whispered, struggling to get the words out. They were among the last she uttered. The day before, she ate her last meal. She didn’t know it would be her last. If she did, she wouldn’t have picked fast food. We all feel incredible guilt for that.

Linette and Christie, my other sister, rubbed Liz’s feet and hands during the day. I read to her at night, when it was just the two of us. Nieces and nephews arrived for the vigil and former best friends came to visit. There were quiet tears and nervous laughter and a million hugs. We took turns holding her hand, taking on that faraway look people get when they stare at a memory.

When it was just the two of us, I recounted those shared childhood memories. And when I could no longer bear my visit with the past, I read out loud, to me as much as to her.

Mercifully, Liz took her last breath on Aug. 29. She was a young, vibrant 58 year old woman who was in perfect health other than that damned cancer.

And while I remain in the fog of grief and continue to process what has happened, I have come to hold in high regard those who work in hospice care.

They truly are angels on Earth.

The doctor, nurses and nursing assistants treated Liz with such care. They were so gentle. So attentive. They really couldn’t have done more had Liz been their relative instead of mine.

When the time comes, everyone should die in a hospice, if possible. Your surviving loved ones will thank you.

I share this intensely private experience with you for one reason. It involves the last piece advice Liz gave me, and it shook me to my core.

“I feel no pain,” she said back in early August. “I still haven’t felt any pain. I just felt a little off, you know? They thought I had pneumonia and they were treating me for pneumonia, but I didn’t get better and that’s when they found it.”

She just felt a little off. No coughing up blood. No intense headaches. No doubling over before you pass out cancer pain. I’m not a kid anymore. All I ever feel is a little off. And that’s on my good days.

She never had a fighting chance.