What does it feel like to be the sibling of a child with cancer?
In 2017, 11 year old Olivia Courtney was diagnosed with Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis. Olivia’s 17 year old sister, Charlotte, attends Villa Maria College in Christchurch and shared her experience of her sister’s cancer at the Australian and New Zealand Children’s Haematology/Oncology Group (ANZCHOG) Annual Scientific Meeting earlier this year.
When Olivia first developed a lump on her head, the doctor thought it was a fatty cyst. Then one day Olivia was hit on the head by a football at school and the ‘cyst’ swelled up across her face. Olivia began experiencing headaches and it wasn’t long before the cyst was recognised for what it really was - cancer.
Charlotte watched her normally slim, sporty, bubbly sibling become very self-conscious. “It was horrible watching my sister change so quickly, both physically and mentally,” says Charlotte. “A few girls at school laughed at Olivia which left me in tears and affected my mental health. I became very protective of Olivia and kept guard over her at assembly in case anyone said anything about her.”
Charlotte also found it difficult to cope with her sister losing her hair. The image of Olivia stepping out of the shower one night, holding her hair in her hands, is one she will never forget. Charlotte was so angry and upset by it that the 17-year-old said she “hated life.”
During Olivia’s treatment, Charlotte missed out on events, including her aunt’s funeral. On the day of the funeral, Olivia had to be admitted to hospital with a high fever. Charlotte offered to stay at the hospital so her mum could go to the funeral.
Charlotte admits it wasn’t all bad though. She liked looking after her younger sister and doing fun things to keep Olivia’s spirits up while she was in hospital. The Courtney family was always positive and grateful, a mindset that would help see them through the tough times. Charlotte also found that going along to Olivia’s appointments made it easier for her to cope, giving her the opportunity to find out how Olivia was really doing and to talk to the health professionals.
The turning point for Charlotte came when she ran a fundraiser for Child Cancer Foundation. Standing in front of her school, she spoke about the Foundation and discovered that she had a supportive audience. It was then that she realised that people really did care, even if they didn’t always quite understand what her family was going through.
Olivia finished treatment in February 2018 and continues to have regular checkups. Charlotte says that while she wishes Olivia hadn’t got sick, she is grateful for what the experience taught her family. Her sister’s cancer has also inspired Charlotte to become a nurse.
You can help support tamariki in Aotearoa with childhood cancer by making a donation.