a letter with a woman at the top separated from her parents at the bottom

Honesty is the Best Policy: Dealing with Family That Can't Handle Cancer

Let me share a letter I recently wrote to a cousin who told me he would be happy to help me with an issue I had with my multiple myeloma diagnosis. When I thanked him he said, “Why, that is what family does.” The interesting thing is that neither him, nor the majority of my family, has been part of my journey with cancer for the last seven years. It is my Facebook family that has been there for me throughout the years, cheering me on. I owe them lots of gratitude.

After several failed attempts to get a hold of my cousin, I decided to write him a letter similar to what follows.

Unsupportive family members

Dear cousin, I try to live according to the values my father taught me when I was just a little girl. He always said, "When you make a promise, you must keep it, because what are you really without your word." You told me I did not have to thank you when I asked you for your help because we are family. My family has not been there for me at all during my battle with cancer. Unfortunately, the reverse of what you said has been true.

Three times I begged my parents to come and help me. I told them I needed them during my two stem cell transplants. This is the response I got from my mother: “You need to pray your cancer away. If that does not work, patients are not meant to survive as they cost society way too much money.”

Ending my relationship with my parents

My father told me months later that he felt people who lived a good life did not get cancer. An interesting conclusion since his mother, his father, his niece, and three of his brothers, including your own Dad, died from cancer. I decided I needed to end my relationship with my parents since it was no longer healthy for me to continue to listen to that type of nonsense. I was 46 years old. My book A Pilgrimage with End, How Cancer Healed My broken Heart talks about my very complicated relationship with my family.

A visit shortened due to my illness

My oldest sister went to a psychic to ask about me when I was first diagnosed. She told my mother that I would survive the cancer but she never contacted me herself. My other sister came to visit me about a month before I was diagnosed. After a couple of days, she got very irritated with me and told me I had ruined her vacation because I could not do much with her. She felt very uncomfortable around me and did not offer to help in any way. It was my six-year-old daughter who would get me something to eat or drink because I had a low-grade fever and had a hard time getting out of bed. My sister, on the other hand, spent 500 dollars to cut her visit short by two days.

Dealing with denial about cancer

My youngest sister wrote to me twice after I was diagnosed and told me she could not handle dealing with me having cancer. That was the last time I heard from her. My brother is sweet, and I love him, though I don’t hear from him often. I understand living around a family who thinks cancer only happens to “bad” people puts him in an awkward position. I recently spoke to him and asked if Mom and Dad are aware of my situation. The doctors are pretty much out of options, and I am aware that time for me is short and precious. He told me my mother is still in denial with the fact that I even have cancer. I have a relationship with two of my aunts who genuinely care and check in on me. Before my uncles passed from prostate cancer, we wrote each other often. They were the only two I had a good and honest relationship with because we understood what it was to go through this journey.

Speaking from the heart

I did not write this letter out of malice, I wrote it from the heart. I don’t have time to hold grudges, nor do I have time to play games. Life is too short to not be honest about our feelings. No excuses are necessary. No apologies either. Some people can handle being around cancer, others can’t. I just hope that those people never have to deal with it themselves.

I used to be afraid of it too, until it invaded my body and I could not run from it. Today, I no longer fear the word or the disease. As I always say, it may get my body one day, but it will never get my spirit.

Editor's Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 23, 2019, Cherie Rineker passed away. We are honored that Cherie shared her experiences with our community and beyond. She will be deeply missed.

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