My big sister Chris, 55, had recently returned to her first career, nursing, when she wrenched her back one day while helping to lift a patient. After weeks of physical therapy proved unhelpful, her internist ordered some tests, which indicated that her back injury might signal something more sinister. She’d had a lumpectomy for a “stage 0” breast cancer five years earlier, and her doctor advised her to make an appointment with the newly appointed head of a brand-new cancer center nearby.
Chris and I were nine years apart–a difference that precluded any sisterly rivalry–and we’d always been very close. She’d occupied a central role in my life: first, as a playful second mother to me, then as my ideal of teenage glamour, and finally as a friend with whom I shared confidences about the joys and sorrows of grown-up life. When it became clear that she might be getting bad news, I needed to be with her, just as my parents did.
The three of us converged on the Pennsylvania town where Chris was living. We met her in the hospital lobby, hugged each other for long moments, then headed off together to meet with the …