There isn’t anyone that doesn’t know of someone that has battled a disease at some point in their life. Whether it be cancer, mental illness, eating disorders, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, or addiction – to some degree, disease is disease. Some have triumphed over their struggles, while others fought the battle until the end, only to lose the war.
Although we lost our siblings to different diseases, we still watched them endure hardships while fighting against something that, in the end, was stronger then them. We, as family, were forced to sit on the sidelines, unable to make their physical, emotional or mental pain cease. From various forms of chemo, radiation or surgical treatments to different anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications- they were forced to put their mind, body and soul through some excruciating pain just to be able to add another day to the calendar.
While we all know of these people, we don’t really, truly know these people. We’ve all heard of stories pertaining to disease and death, however, it’s rare that we hear or see what happens behind the scenes. The lasting impact it has on both the patient and the family and the roller coaster of emotions that take place along the way. From the fight to the triumphs and back to defeat, from what seems like never ending decision making, just to hope it was the ‘right’ one, just to doubt it and yet be forced to trust it all at once. From the overwhelming support of those around you, only to feel so alone in the crowd of supporters. From the distress on so many levels, only to hope it’s worth every ounce of energy put forth by everyone. From the tears to the triumphs, from overwhelming sadness to finding laughter in the little moments, the heartache to the joys of the smallest things you never noticed before, from the heaviest of guilt weighing on us down to trying to see the bigger picture through the diluted veil. From watching them in pain in every realm, to one day being forced to feel much of that same pain. This is a journey that so many – too many – experience, but one that often times doesn’t get brought up in the rawness in which is truth for many. And I want to bring forth that rawness, that truth and the awareness behind it.
I feel truly honored to be able to share this ‘Siblings Tribute’ with 3 other strong, brave, compassionate and determined souls to bring forth both their siblings stories, as well as their own. Our hope is that this can offer a sense of peace for those who are struggling in any way – to know that you aren’t alone on this journey, whether you’re the one who’s in the ring for another round to fight, or the cheerleader on the sidelines – your story matters! This is Part 1 of a few entries and I am truly so grateful they agreed to do this with me! Although these entries were excruciating to write – I’m excited to share both of their stories, as well as their sisters battle against a disease we’re all well aware and hear far too much about – cancer.
*Disclaimer: a box of tissues is recommended – you’ve been warned 😉
“Sisters from the start, friends forever from the heart.”
You and your sister (names, background, ages)- who were you both pre-diagnosis?
My name is Brynn Ashley Soderlind. I was 31 when my sister Jaime Teresa Gartner was diagnosed with breast cancer on October 14, 2011. Jaime was only 32 years old. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child as I sat in the waiting room of the doctors office. My three year old nephew, Jaime’s son Jameson, sat on my lap on a blue upholstered bench. He was such a patient child. He held my hand and we sat there mostly in silence. It seemed like years. We waited and waited and waited. Finally, three hours later, Jaime came down the dark grey hallway. Her dark brown long hair framed her beautiful face like a picture. I remember her brief eye contact with me and then her eyes quickly fixed on her son. Tears were pouring down her face as she opened her arms to meet his little body. He fell into her with relief. She looked to me and smiled as she wiped her tears quickly from her cheeks and shook her head “no”. I knew right then that the massive lump in my sisters breast wasn’t a cyst or an enlarged lymph node. My throat felt tight as I swallowed hard. My sister had cancer.
We grew up with a strong sense of self. We lived out in the country on a hobby farm with our loving parents and grandparents, some goats, chickens, pigs, dogs, rabbits and a blind cow. We had great company each day with our siblings- Ericka, Ian and Seth- and the neighborhood kids our mom babysat. We loved to hike on the land and explore the 132 acre woods that we lived on and absorb all that nature provided to us. Jaime and I loved to take our Red Ryder BB guns out and shoot targets that Ian would set up for us. Life was easy. Life was so good. We loved to go to Whitewater State Park and as teens we would spend most of our summer hiking and swimming. We also loved to travel and took several road trips together and with friends. We did almost everything together. Where there was Jaime, there was likely Brynn.
We would end up moving to Colorado together in 1999. We loved the mountains. We loved the experience but eventually we ended up back in Minnesota together.
Almost a year before her cancer diagnosis, Jaime and I were in Esthetician school together. Jaime and Jameson lived with my husband Adam and I in our condo. Jaime and I had a long history of sames. We had the same jobs, wore the same clothes, loved the same foods, had the same friends, lived in the same cities, read the same books, listened to the same music. Her and I shared a bedroom, secrets, underwear, makeup, cars, lunch money, dreams, aspirations, germs but mostly, we shared genetics. I was encouraged to have genetic testing done shortly after my 33 year old sister had a bilateral mastectomy. I knew that if my sister had breast cancer at 32 years old, I had a pretty good chance of getting it too. When I got the genetic counseling and testing, my daughter was a baby and still breastfeeding. I remember the fear surrounding a positive genetic mutation. What if I too shared the BRCA2 mutation? I knew for me, it would mean a mastectomy and possibly a hysterectomy. That meant no more children. I was ok with that as long as I had an upper hand on controlling the disease.
I had a strong feeling that I didn’t have the mutation. I soon learned that Jaime had the same feeling. Sure enough, I tested negative for the BRCA2 mutation. I cried so hard when I heard the positive news; half of me was relieved and half of me felt guilty. I know it may seem strange, but it was like we had always shared everything and now we didn’t. And I was happy and devastated all at the same time. You see that’s the tricky part about disease and being a caretaker to someone you love so much. The cancer may have taken over my sister’s body, but it also consumed me, differently, but still the same. It completely changed everything.
I thought about cancer all day long. I thought about ways to help heal. I threw myself into research and tried to educate myself as best as I could. I attended every appointment. I quit my job to care for her full time. Her cancer became my cancer. Her life sort of became my responsibility. I’d lie awake at night running through all of the “to do’s” Did she take all of her meds? Did she eat enough? Were all of her appointments scheduled? Did we write down all of our questions? I learned as much as I could about her tumors on my own time. When they told her that her tumors were ERPR positive, HER2 negative, I researched. When they told her that she needed radioactive Theraspheres implanted into her liver, I researched. When they said there was nothing left to try, I researched. I always wanted to find a way to save my sister’s life. I wanted her dream of becoming a grandmother to come to fruition. I wanted to see her pain-free and dancing in the woods at night like we used to do when we were young. I wanted to travel again, hike, shop, sing, learn to knit and play guitar with her. She always wanted us to take knitting classes and guitar classes together, but I guess we never made the time. I wish we would have figured out how to make it work. Especially guitar lessons. We both loved singing and music so much. I imagine how therapeutic it would have been to be able to play guitar and sing together during her 4.5 year fight against cancer. We both had our own guitar and knitting needles, but never learned. Now, I am ready to take guitar lessons. I will learn to knit this winter. The thing I’ve learned is that life doesn’t wait for us. We have to take advantage of the time we have- right now- today. If there is something you want to learn or experience, go for it. Set goals! Chase dreams! Jaime’s goal was to make it to Mother’s Day. My goal is to make sure that women aren’t dismissed when they find a lump in their breast, at any age. Jaime was dismissed by 3 different doctors before the fourth ordered a mammogram. 3 different doctors! None of them thought she had cancer because she was young and because they told her cancer didn’t hurt, so her lump must have been a cyst or something. It will take me a lifetime to get over the dismissal she received from those individuals. If a 31 year old woman complains of discomfort and has a sizable lump, it should be taken seriously. Mammograms save lives. Every lump should be examined thoroughly.
What battles (disease, metastasis, how many times in remission/relapse) did she endure and for how long? Explain what impact this had on you personally and how it changed both of your lives/perspectives, good and bad.
Jaime possessed a natural ability to find the positive in situations. She never complained about her circumstances. Not one time. She never had a pity party. I’m sure on her own time alone she often struggled, but she never divulged any of those feelings. She made light of the adverse reaction she had to steroids during her radiation treatments. She would joke about how the development of Cushing’s Syndrome was the worst part of the entire cancer experience because she had a 100 pound weight gain which was painful and left her almost unrecognizable. Her skin began to split in areas from the rapid weight gain. Her body ached all over. They learned that the steroids they were giving her for pain control caused her adrenal glands to fail and shut down. Jaime didn’t mind loosing her hair. She liked hats. She knew she could manage the mastectomy with future reconstruction surgery and prosthetics. But Jaime did not know how to be ok with the Cushing’s Syndrome and her physical immobility and intense pain. In my opinion, the most challenging piece through her cancer journey the rapid weight gain and pain that accompanied it like an orchestra.
Jaime was diagnosed in October of 2011. She started chemotherapy quickly. Her lump was so invasive and so aggressive that they feared removing it without hitting her with a cycle of chemotherapy prior to surgery. Jaime had 7 rounds of chemotherapy between October 2011 -April 2012. On May 11, 2012, Jaime underwent a bilateral mastectomy and sentinel lymph node dissection. They inserted tissue expanders inside the chest wall to reconstruct her breasts with implants. The expanders were placed behind the muscle of the chest wall. The idea was to slowly stretch the skin by filling the expanders with air overtime to accommodate an implant.
We moved into her apartment in May after her mastectomy to care for her and Jameson. She couldn’t be alone and certainly couldn’t care for her three year old son by herself. I spent my days with Jaime, Jameson and my 7 month old daughter Poppy. I took her to appointments, cared for her and the children and did all of the normal day to day tasks and errands. I had so much help from Adam at night and on the weekends. Following her discharge from her mastectomy, Jaime’s pain continued. She had so much pain. She was so weak and tired. Her surgery sites began to show signs of infection. I called the clinic with great concern. I was reassured several times that what I was describing was “normal healing”. When her pain became unbearable, I brought her into the ER at a different hospital. She was quickly admitted after examination. She went into surgery the next day to have the tissue expanders removed because she was septic. I felt so angry and so frustrated. I felt like I let her down. I had called several times with concern. I was always told that it was normal. Now she had a major setback in her recovery.
After that surgery to remove the expanders, Jaime never really felt good again. Ever. It was like the infection had gotten into the core of her being. She was so unsure. Her days and nights consisted of doctors appointments and pain management. After that surgery she went six months without seeing a doctor. She moved to Waseca and rented a house. She and Jameson lived right next door to our mom and stepdad. She just never felt good. Mom and Dad expressed concern about the lack of medical care and lack of follow up. Jaime was in a deep dark depression. She seemed to feel like they did everything they could do for her and this was what she would endure. We felt that she should be closely followed with scans and check ups. Nothing was scheduled. She had no desire to go to the doctor. Then in November of 2012, Jaime came to visit us in New Hope. She was in so much pain in her hips and low back that she could hardly walk. The pain was constant and ibuprofen wasn’t even coming close to touching it. Adam encouraged her to go to the ER. After some persuasion, she agreed. The ER dr in Plymouth MN listened to her history and decided that a pain injection of Tordol to her hip would suffice and he sent her home. No scans were ordered. Her blood work showed elevated white cells and all of her numbers were either a bit high or low in almost every category. They knew she had cancer earlier that year. Why wouldn’t they have investigated her complaints and concerns more thoroughly? She was a 33 year old single mother with a history of breast cancer. I will never understand the lack of care. Fast forward a month later, she has similar complaints of low back pain and hip pain. Adam takes her into the ER again, and she gets the exact same diagnosis and treatment. They say it’s likely menses pain and they encourage a hot bath and ibuprofen. That was in December 2012. A moth later, on January 21, 2013, she fell in the bathroom in the middle of the night while visiting us in Duluth at our new temporary home. Jaime managed to crawl into the living room where she was able to wake us with screams like I have never heard before. After helping her up, Adam got her into our SUV and drove to the ER at St Lukes. At 3am on January 22, Adam texted me that he and Jaime were meeting with a neurosurgeon and likely she needed spinal surgery to fix her broken lumbar. He also mentioned that they were quite confused how she managed to break her lumbar by falling in the bathroom since the lumbar is the strongest part of the spine. After laying flat for 4 days in a body brace, the biopsies revealed that Jaimes entire skeleton had been infiltrated with breast cancer. I remember the look on her face when they told her that her breast cancer was a stage 4 and terminal. She looked relieved. She looked frightened. She looked so young and so lovely. I was engulfed with sickness and anger. Terminal breast cancer?!! How did this happen?
After she broke her back, she realized that St Lukes hospital in Duluth Minnesota was where she was meant to be. She began her care and treatments of weeks of radiation, many surgeries, continuous chemotherapy, injections in her neck and back and pain management. The nurses and doctors were incredible at St Lukes. She felt cared for and loved and validated. Her pain was finally explained! She could finally trust medical staff. She became so close to her oncologist, Dr. Based Goueli and her nurse Terri. They gave her the greatest care and love. She trusted them. I trusted them. We were able to navigate through all of the bad news together and even in her final days, she felt comfort and trust when she talked to Dr Goueli or Terri specifically.
During her battle, she also had to have a hysterectomy. Pathology of her ovaries detected breast cancer. From there, Jaime’s cancer spread into to the liver. Her care team kept up on her treatments of chemotherapy and she was able to fight for another year and a half. Jaime ended up passing away on a beautiful sunny Thursday morning in the arms of me and our older sister and our parents. Jaime had been in hospice care at St. Luke’s hospital for less than a week. Jaime died from liver failure caused by metastatic breast cancer to bones and liver. She had so much trouble breathing in her final hours. I remember feeling like she was drowning and I couldn’t pull her up or give her air. She fought until the last breath. April 14, 2016 was the hardest day of my existence. I lost a big part of myself when she passed. She had been unable to communicate the last day, but moments before she died, she opened her eyes and made brief eye contact with me and began to cry. She quickly shifted her eyes to our sister Ericka as tears fell down her face. Her eyes fixed towards my parents with her last breath.
I remember my mom placed her delicate hand on Jaime’s sweet face as she gently ran her palm down over her eyes to assist them to close. I remember the sound of my dad pulling a bandaid off of Jaime’s arm and throwing it across the room as he wept. I continue to replay these moments over and over- just like the the day she was diagnosed. The connections. The similarities. The tears. The beauty and the tragedy of it all. The brief eye contact that cut like a knife, the tears that poured from our eyes like wine, and the fear and yet the calming sense of peace that embodied all of it.
What did this consist of for you personally – to recall being a cheerleader on the sidelines, observing, but being unable to save them? (Ultimately the trauma of being the survivor).
I am forever grateful that I was able to care for my sister during her fight with cancer. I was able to support her and fight right along side her. I made sure she knew that she wasn’t alone. It’s been a month since she passed. The sorrow and pain really does come in waves. Everyday I wonder if there was anything more or anything else I could have done to help her have more time. I guess there will always be a part of me that will lament over the possibilities of treatments and cures. She ultimately decided that she would fight until the very end and she did. She fought so hard. Now I sit with my sword down and my shield up. I am still at war but all of the enemies are gone. I am less now. I am forever less without her here beside me. I will never understand why my sister had to fight so hard and ultimately die fighting breast cancer.
How has this changed you and your life course?
Jaimes diagnosis absolutely changed me. I changed because I had to. I quit my job to care for her, we cancelled a move across the country to care for her, and I directed my focus and energy towards her health and healing.
Jaime and I were somewhat different from one another. Physically we were basically opposite. Our personalities, although different, meshed as we complemented each other well. We understood each others sense of humor. We had so many common threads and so much interest in one another. We had our own language and the ability to read one another with little effort. Sometimes we even felt one another’s pain or discomfort when apart. Jaime was 20 months older than me. We were only a grade apart in school. She always joked that I was the “big sister” and she was the “little sister”. I was taller, so that was ok with me. I will remember Jaime as an intelligent, loving, generous, carefree, slightly unpredictable, esthetically well maintained, stylish woman. She always had a big beautiful bright smile and she was always late for everything.
Since her passing, I have had a strong pull towards becoming more carefree and less concerned about details that don’t matter. I’m trying to learn to live in the moments that we are given each day.
I am contemplating my next steps and trying to discover what is best for me and what is next for me now that she is gone.
Do you feel you’re meant to do something differently with your life because of her death? And if so, what is your hope/goal? How do you want her to live on?
Jaime left me with three quotes:
“Be a rainbow in the cloud”
“Something will grow from all you are going through, and it will be you.”
“Don’t worry, No one likes a know-it-all”
I am doing a lot of soul searching and digging deep to find my balance and my purpose in life. I believe that Jaime’s spirit will help to guide me down the best path.
I do feel that I have great compassion and empathy and love and concern for others. Jaime has always encouraged me to become a nurse… but she also wanted me to pursue an acting career and become a professional photographer so I’m a bit confused about her impression of my actual talents or calling. I guess I may be confused as well? I feel like I need to find a vessel that allows me to help advocate for people struggling to find the medical care that they need and deserve. I don’t want one more woman with a lump in her breast to have to go to four doctors just to get a mammogram. I want to bring awareness to breast cancer affecting young women. Breast cancer isn’t only killing post-menopausal women. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. Men, women, young and old are all candidates for breast cancer. Screening is key! Early detection saves lives. Genetic counseling helps us to make informed preventative decisions about our health. Who knows, maybe my sister would still be here today if the first doctor who saw Jaime would have ordered a simple mammogram.
Jaime will live on in the masterpiece she created. Her strong loving intelligent boy Jameson carries her beauty, strength and perseverance. He has her personality and her heart of gold. Jameson is the greatest legacy and a beautiful reminder that my sister still remains.
**If this resonated with you, feel free to share on Social Media to not only raise awareness, but bring hope to any that may be struggling**