«It was always clear to me that I would put my own life on hold for my brother – whatever»
Interview with Olivia Frick, sister of two brothers with cancer
Olivia Frick works as a qualified nurse in the hospital’s oncology department. Her choice of profession goes back a long way: both Olivia and two of her siblings successfully won the battle against cancer. Olivia was ten when one of her brothers was diagnosed with a malignant tumour in his lymphatic system. Four years later her second brother was diagnosed with exactly the same form of cancer. In 2012, she too was diagnosed with a Hodgkin lymphoma.
Ms Frick, when your first brother was diagnosed with cancer, you were ten. When the diagnosis came through for your second brother, you were fourteen. What was that like for you and your family?
The first diagnosis was an extreme shock for all of us. At home, we didn’t talk much about the illness or what was happening at the hospital. Because I was so young, the first thing I thought of when I heard the word “cancer” was death and I was really frightened that my brother was going to die. I knew virtually nothing about the disease or the treatment and felt very unsettled. To add to that, I could really sense my parents’ despair and that they felt completely out of their depth. It was only many years later, as an adult, that I was able to understand their reactions. Although I was only ten at the time, I tried to protect my parents and I effectively became independent overnight. The whole of our day as a family suddenly revolved around our sick brother and what the rest of us, the other three siblings, needed simply had to be pushed aside. What I found particularly awful was the fact that I wasn’t allowed to visit my brother in hospital, although my siblings could. When he came home after his operation and chemotherapy, I was very sad to see him so ill and miserable. If I had known more about the illness and treatment, I don’t think things would have been quite so bad for me. But the fact that we siblings really stuck together helped me a lot during this difficult time. When it came to my second brother, the situation was completely different.
How did you react when your oldest brother was diagnosed with cancer four years later?
When the tumour was discovered in 2010, the disease was already very advanced. We were all very worried about him and didn’t know if he would actually survive. But unlike the time before, I was older and was very involved from the outset. It was incredibly important for me to be there for him and support him, particularly because we are so close. That’s why I went with him to the examinations and the treatment in hospital as often as I could. He is a fighter by nature and after nine months of intense therapy, he was finally out of the woods. Emotionally, this time put such a strain on me that I couldn’t function properly any more. I couldn’t even go to school, for example. Instead, I went to see my brother in hospital. I wasn’t able to keep up my grades at school and it became increasingly difficult for me to interact with my classmates. Looking back, I would say that inside I was torn between the fear of losing my brother and being angry with others who were lucky enough not to be in the situation we were in. In addition, there was the feeling of having to do without lots of things, such as the attention of my parents, who were torn between my sick brother and their demanding work. But it was always clear to me that I would put my own life on hold for my brother – whatever.
What were the most difficult moments during this time?
The biggest challenge for me at that time was the balancing act between the fear of losing my brother and the need to develop myself. I was right in the middle of puberty back then and would naturally have liked to have been given more attention and devotion than was possible in this extreme situation. Having to do without that wasn’t easy. But I was always someone who was reflective and self-sacrificing. Out of necessity, I had to learn to develop my own strategies to deal with the situation. But what helped me, apart from the strong bond between us siblings, was the love I felt for my brother, my friends and sport. Because my two brothers were ill and the fact that I was later diagnosed with cancer myself, I experienced a lot of suffering at a young age. I was often frightened and sad, but I also drew strength from this difficult time. First of all, my brothers showed me that it is possible to beat cancer. Secondly, I learned early on that blows of fate also have the potential for you to discover your own resources. Today, I would say that I had to grow up very quickly and that I actually brought myself up in many ways.
What would you have wished for during this difficult time?
I would have appreciated more space and time within the family to talk about our fears and worries. In retrospect, I think it would have helped me to have experienced a more open and compassionate communication about the illness and the therapy. When you are a young child, you often think it’s your fault when your parents are stressed. You can’t really assess the situation properly because you don’t know enough about it. Which is why I think it is all the more important to talk to each other about these sometimes contradictory feelings. Cancer also means extreme stress for the siblings.
How did the illness influence your life?
I always try to concentrate on the positive things in life. Everyone in our family learned something from the illness. We know how valuable life is and how short it can be. Personally, I’m not frightened of the future. I take life as it comes. And do things that do me good. Both for my brothers and for myself, a lot of positive things have come out of the illness. After cancer, each of us found our own way and developed further. I wanted to study business administration for example. But I just couldn’t forget the two nurses who looked after me with such devotion in the hospital back then. Their passion for their job made a great impression on me. That’s why I ultimately decided to go into nursing. I’ve been working in oncology for five years now and I love my job. And I don’t think there is any other job that I could do as well. Thanks to my experience, I know the challenges cancer patients and their relatives have to face.
How would you sum up your experience?
Well, it may sound a little strange, but my story has taught me to trust life.