Cancer. It’s a word, not a sentence. Although, if you were born into our family, it seems it has to be. That word is thrown around a lot these days, being incurable and intimidating, the signature on your death certificate. When this word echoes through your mind, reverberating throughout your skull, the world comes down on top of you; threatening to crush you before you’ve even had a chance to experience the fate life couldn’t resist thrusting into your arms.
Cancer. Your senses numb, sight blinded by images of your last moments, saying goodbye to the people who will cry when you’re gone. It hurts to imagine the pain in their eyes, the terror in their souls as they realise they will never speak to you again; never hear the replies to their remarks or questions. The words that never came, yet heard so clearly, and more vivid in the memory than any other trivial conversation. I try to remember a chat, any exchange of words of which that word wasn’t a part of, but I come up blank. I stifle a sob, when I realise I wasn’t just imagining the heartbroken gaze, as I refocus the world and fix upon my sister’s startled, pale blue eyes, the ones we share, which are brimming with sparking tears. I can’t stand it. I feel guilty for causing her to hurt, for the emotional damage I am about to inflict on her.
For even though I have heard of people surviving this sort of thing, I know deep down in my heart that this isn’t one of those times. I have seen this before, and I have only recently gotten over it. We have only just got over it. Now we are about to be slaughtered again. Well, Cleo is. I doubt I would feel anything after I was gone.
“What? Sorry, could you say that again?”
“The test results are back, Miss Reinhart,” sooths the young, kindly nurse, as if she was used to delivering the devastating words. “And I’m sorry to say we have discovered a cancerous growth in-”
“Can we cut the crap?” I snap, wanting to get answers quickly. “What is it? Is it curable?”
I turn to my sister, taking in her curly brown locks, grown at a medium length. Usually, it’s styled to perfection, immaculate and smooth, but today there are split ends, tangles, and her fringe is slightly damp from the sheen of sweat painting her rounded, sallow face. I can see she is dying to cry, obviously memories of the painful past resurfacing, but she is fighting through it, for my sake. I’m spiked with a sudden jolt, as I realise she is taking my place. That’s my job, to be in control and calm in ruthless situations. She is only fifteen, for god’s sake, and already she has lived through ten lifetimes worth of pain, and is a professional at wearing a mask to hide it. It is my role, as her big sister and sole guardian, to be positive, and now, this is what I have to do.
“Bex, it’s OK,” she hushes. “We’re going to be OK. We always are.”
“Sorry for cursing,” I tell the nurse after a pause.
“It’s alright love; I know it’s a stressful time right now.”
“So?” I press. “What type is it?”
I already know the answer as she says it, “Breast.”
Cleo and I share a glance, and she sniffs whilst I barely hold back my own.
“Has anyone in your family ever had Cancer? It may be genetic.”
“Our Mum,” my voice cracks on the last word, and my tones are raspy and hoarse. “She’s dead.”
Cleo grasps my hand, in a reassuring yet sad way. It was the type of gesture that encourages you to continue, to carry on, but to also break down, weeping. I smile back, but I know by the look on her face she can see right through it.
“Can she do that, thing, what’s it called... Chemotherapy?” Cleo asks.
“Actually, the growth is quite advanced, but it’s always worth trying.”
“Nothing is worth losing my hair,” I joke half heartedly, knowing it isn’t true. There is something worth even more than my silky, brown curls, and that is my sister, Cleo. If I left, she would be alone. Fending for herself before she had even sat her GCSEs.
I take in a deep breath through my nose, the scent of disinfectant and the freshness of the hospital around me. Here, in this office, I make a decision, one that could increase my chances, not for my sake, but for hers.
“So what are my options?”
My reflection wears my black clothes, has my dull brown hair and dead blue eyes. She looks at me, expression lifeless, as if I were the corpse. But I’m not dead yet. First it’s Bex’s turn.
I miss her laugh, the dry comments, the scolding she would give girls if they sneered at my scruffy uniform or scuffed shoes. I miss her presence, and the way she would soothe me when the nightmares came, not caring that I woke her up in the dead of night to cry over our mother. Now there was no-one, and double the amount of pain. I don’t even bother to hide it anymore.
I can’t stop thinking about what she would have said, to my remarks and questions. Would she have told me to get lost, if I asked her to help with my homework, or would she accept enthusiastically, but give me the wrong answers? Probably the latter.
Mum used to go ballistic when she did something like that, but what she said to make her behave was a complete mystery to me. I can’t remember the small things, the words at the time which meant so little, but now seem so significant. I can only think of the things she might have said, the words of comfort she would whisper in my ear, tucking behind it any loose strands of hair, her presence alone drying the tears which now fall so freely down my sunken cheeks.
Bex and I had grown up with pain, practically drowning in it. Our mother had left us money, a house and a hole in our hearts, and only now I realise she has left us – had left, in Bex’s case – something else, buried in our genes. She had suffered the fatal illness, and Bex had inherited it. I know it’s only a matter of time before I fall ill also, but I’m OK with it. I will welcome anything which will stop this pain, the hole in my heart which has now doubled in size, and is growing at an alarming rate, consuming me. Just like cancerous cells.
For Bex’s growth had spiralled out of control, speeding up like nothing the doctor’s had even seen. There was nothing they could do to stop the unknown, so she died. On the 29th July 2012, my sister left my in favour of death, a limp and feeble thing.
"Bye, babe," she had said, still smiling.
Despite my love of her, I still curse her name for what she did to me. What they did to me. Family is worth nothing, and trust is pointless. In the end, everyone leaves you, and everyone lets you down. They destroyed my life, as well as made it, and for that, I will never forgive them.
“Not like we care. We’re dead, remember?”
I spin round, to face my sister, sat cross-legged on my unmade bed, all glossy hair and smiles. Her dazzling grin was the one the boys always fell for. Simple minded fools, we used to say.
“Bex? Is that you?” I stammer, quite unable to believe my eyes.
“Not quite, babe,” she says, and I frown. “I’m an echo, coming from the other side to fix this mess.”
“Yeah. You can’t hate me, Cleo. It wasn’t my fault. I can’t help what I inherited off of Mum. You have to know I never wanted to leave you, and I never will.”
She stands up, and walks over to my petrified form. I have never been a believer, but the evidence of my eyes is quite substantial. My breath quickens, as I see at close range, my sister’s figure was waxy, and blurred around the edges.
“I know it sound’s really cheesy,” she begins. “But I’m always gonna be with you. We both are. Right here,” her finger jabbed my chest where my whole heart used to be. “Happy?”
I nod, lost for words.
“Mum says hi, and Dad’s here somewhere too. You’re not alone, Cleo, and so long as you remember us right, you never will be.”
And with that, she vanishes, but I'm not alone, not really. Not when my family have left love, and so many good memories to my name.
Cancer. It’s not a word, or a sentence. It’s a legacy.