Family Dynamics & Cancer: A Sister’s Perspective

Photo of Paige Woods

Alli Shoemaker Stories

As an older sibling with some semblance of an adult life of my own, Grace’s diagnosis affected me differently than it did the rest of my family. On some days it even seemed like maybe it wasn’t affecting me at all. I was keeping up in school, making it to my shifts at work, and maintaining my relationships and social calendar. I felt guilty about this, which made me feel guiltier that my sister was going through aggressive cancer treatment. And sometimes, the only feeling I could muster up was selfish guilt. I also tried to fill the shoes of who I perceived to be the only rationally-minded person left in our family since Grace’s diagnosis or, at least, the only one willing to speak up. I’m sure my middle sister harbored some of these thoughts, but she was less assertive than I.

It was about a month after her diagnosis, and Grace was quickly figuring out that she could get whatever she wanted when she wanted it. Being the baby of the family, she was used to this anyway, but her “power” had hit a new level since her diagnosis. As the oldest child in the family and eight years her senior, this was something I’d been keenly aware of before cancer, and I had been reluctantly aware of it lately. The most ridiculous example is her transition into my old bedroom at home.

She moved into my room, and I wasn’t thrilled about it. It wasn’t long after she made the move before she decided she wanted it repainted. I was opposed to this and insisted that it was a shame to cover up the colors I’d chosen for that room not long before. Plus, I still wasn’t pleased that she was currently residing in MY room.

How she eventually got her way was a sly little trick. First, let me inform you that Grace was super tough. She put up with all of the poking and prodding and slicing better than anyone else who her doctors and nurses dealt with. I believe it was after one of her early chemo treatments, she had been discharged but still had to get a shot before heading home. I wasn’t there, but apparently she put up a fight to get this shot. She wound up using the shot as leverage to get her room repainted. I couldn’t believe my mom fell for it.

My [over]reaction went something like, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. She gets an idea in her head and figures out a way to manipulate you to get her way. Her, or should I say, MY room repainted because she agreed to get a shot? There’s no way she was actually upset about having to get this shot. I don’t care how big the needle was. What’s next, another dog if she agrees to brush her teeth? You’re opening a can of worms.”

The story gets better, because my mom promptly repainted her bedroom, which allowed for Grace to figure out what she wanted next even quicker.

Enter: The lofted bed idea. She was no more than two months into treatment, and surgery to remove her tumor was right around the corner. We didn’t know yet if that surgery would result in a limb salvage procedure or if she’d ultimately lose most of her right leg. In either case, she would be pretty immobile for the month or so following the surgery date. What did Grace think she needed next? A lofted bed.

“Yes,” I told my parents, “buy a lofted bed for a girl who has a 50/50 probability of losing her freaking leg in the next few weeks. That sounds like a great plan. How do you expect her to be able to get in and out of bed if there’s a ladder involved in this situation?”

I probably don’t have to tell you that she absolutely got her lofted bed, and she was smitten as a kitten about it.

It’s interesting how sibling rivalry can rear its head even during the most trying of times. Most of us, including me, would probably think a mature 20-year-old wouldn’t exhibit the behavior that I did. Truth be told, my main concern at the time was that I was worried about who my parents were allowing Grace to become if they gave her all these “things” she wanted precisely when she wanted them.

In my mind, I was trying to step in with a rational big-picture way to think about things.

Rationalization wasn’t what they wanted or needed to hear in that moment, they just wanted to make Grace happy, and I can’t blame them for that.

The bottom line is that just because a sibling gets sick, family dynamics don’t disappear. This is okay and totally normal. Grace has been gone for two years now, and I still have moments where I experience these types of feelings. Nowadays, those feelings usually appear because the realist in me wants her to be remembered for exactly who she was.

This includes the parts of her that were less than desirable at times; I don’t want or need her to be sanctified, I want her to be remembered for both her appealing qualities and her imperfections, and people sometimes feel the need to place others on a pedestal after they’ve died.

P.S. She got to keep her leg, but she didn’t end up liking her lofted bed anyway. She actually sold the thing like 8 weeks after she got it. I definitely took the opportunity to remind my parents that it was a bad idea to begin with, and I’m sure they were very proud of me pointing out that I was right. (Yes, that is sarcasm.)

Written by Paige Woods
Paige is the older sister of Grace Woods who passed from osteosarcoma.

Support the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund

Zach and his family helped start the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund at Children’s Cancer Research Fund. Directed proceeds from his music and other fundraisers help researchers tackle osteosarcoma.

Learn More