When siblings have cancer: Facing sarcoma alongside my sister
The first time my little sister, Erica Nowell, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in 2005, she was still a teenager and I was deployed overseas in Iraq. My family felt it best not to tell me at the time. They wanted me to stay focused on getting home safely.
It took me a while to make peace with that decision, though I knew they were only acting in my best interests. Back then, I wasn’t in a position to help or support my sister. So, after her relapse last year, I really wanted to be there for her.
Then, this February, I got a nasty surprise: I was diagnosed with myxoid liposarcoma — a variation of the same disease my sister was fighting. To say it came as a shock would be a massive understatement. It’s been absolutely surreal.
My sarcoma diagnosis
I first noticed the lump in my groin earlier this year. I immediately told my mother about it. I didn’t tell Erica right away, though, because I wanted her to stay focused on her own sarcoma treatment and not worry about me. (I learned that tactic from those two.)
Instead, I went to the VA hospital for a CT scan, as I was already receiving care there for other issues. When I found out the lump was cancerous, I finally told my sister. We discussed my test results, and after learning how unusual our situation was, I knew MD Anderson was where I wanted to be.
‘No doubt that I’m in the right place’
Apparently, it’s extremely rare for siblings to be diagnosed with different types of sarcoma, especially when there’s no family history to make it more likely. Erica and I both got genetic testing after my diagnosis, but our results came back negative for all 84 mutations associated with hereditary cancer syndromes. So, our cancers evolved completely independently.
Every doctor I’ve met at MD Anderson has been completely surprised by our situation. But I have no doubt that I’m in the right place. MD Anderson already saved my sister once. She’s responding well to her current treatment. And there’s a positive energy at MD Anderson that I've never seen at any other hospital. That gives me a lot of confidence.
I started my radiation treatments on May 18 at MD Anderson’sTexas Medical Center location. Since Erica is receiving radiation therapy there, too, the staff lets us schedule our sessions back-to-back. That allows us to carpool and sit together in the waiting area. Typically, Erica goes in first, and then they call me back. On Wednesdays, Dr. Guadagnolo lets us be seen together for our weekly on-treatment visits, instead of having to wait for two separate appointments.
All of those accommodations have been really helpful as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nobody ever wants to have cancer, but having it with my sister by my side has been a true blessing. And knowing my care team is the same one that’s been treating her has dramatically eased my fears. I feel really lucky, and I am confident we can beat this thing.