Joanne Jaworek and her older sister Chrissy always had each other’s back, despite an eight-year age gap.
When they were young and their parents worked a lot, Chrissy would change Joanne’s diapers and look after her. When Chrissy went to college, Joanne would raid her dad’s change stash for laundry quarters, which she gave when she visited her at Tufts University.
When their dad died, Chrissy took 17-year-old Joanne under her wing. As a teaching assistant, Chrissy got Joanne a job at the university’s chemistry lab, handing out goggles and stocking supplies.
“I have so many great memories from being with her,” Joanne says. “Even though I was eight years younger, I wasn’t the dweeby little sister.”
Chrissy graduated from Tufts with a PhD and became an associate professor of chemistry at Emmanuel College in Boston, where she was known as “Dr. J Lo.” She was known for being a tough but fun teacher, who inspired her undergraduate students to appreciate chemistry.
Her love for the science and teaching went beyond the classroom, too. Every October she taught children about chemistry at the Boston Science Museum. And she was writing a textbook when she was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“The cancer came out of nowhere,” Joanne says. Just three months earlier, Chrissy had completed a half-marathon.
On January 1, 2016, Chrissy felt sick, like she had a stomach bug. Joanne encouraged her to visit the hospital, as her husband had an intestinal blockage once, and the symptoms seemed similar.
Chrissy took her sister’s advice and went to the hospital. By 2 a.m. the next day, she learned she had a mass in her colon and lesions all over her liver.
“The toughest call was calling our mom to say that Chrissy has cancer,” Joanne says. “We picked mom up and were at hospital at 10 a.m. that day.”
Chrissy underwent surgery and chemotherapy. About halfway through 24 rounds of chemotherapy, she started losing hair. Chrissy didn’t want to wear a wig, so she wore chemotherapy caps from friends. Joanne, always having her big sister’s back, thought she could go even further.
“I ordered a cap from Etsy, and I thought, I could make this,” Joanne says.
And make them, she did. She made chemotherapy caps with themes including Star Wars, the Celtics, Valentines Day, Easter–even a cap with organic chemistry molecules. Together, Chrissy and Joanne would discuss designs.
“We’re not primpy girls, but my sister had the most gorgeous hair–big, curly, and beautiful,” Joanne says. “When she started losing clumps of hair and she shaved it off, I wanted her to feel pretty still. When you’re in treatment, you don’t feel pretty, but if you have something on top of your head that makes you smile, brightens your day, and makes your kids happy, then why not?”
Despite battling cancer, Chrissy continued working and being a mom of four children, two of her own and two step-children.
“Her kids were keeping her moving, in an effort to keep everything normal for them,” Joanne says. “We didn’t have the easiest childhood growing up, so we learned to become strong women.”
Three weeks before she died, Chrissy spoke at a local colon cancer race held in town, which students from the high school organized. Two weeks before she died, she was grading exams. Less than a week before, Chrissy made dinner for her family.
“On May 7, 2016, she was told she was terminal, that she had four to six weeks,” Joanne says. “But she only made it two.”
Today, Joanne continues to make the caps in memory of her sister. She donates boxes of them to hospitals, like the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. She also sells them on her website, cardinalcomforts.com.
“As long as people will take them, I’ll keep making them,” Joanne says. “It’s been my therapy–you never truly get over someone so close, but I think it’s helped me get over my grief a little bit.”
Every March, which is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Joanne ties blue ribbons.
“My birthday is in March, and as I put the ribbons up, I reflect on all the people who will not celebrate their birthdays because they lost their battle with colon cancer, or those who lost someone to it, and the people who are fighting it,” she says. “Take time with loved ones and make beautiful memories. Tell them you love them. That’s what means the most, and lasts a lifetime.”
In March, we observe National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Join us as we build our nation of passionate allies, fiercely determined to end this disease within our lifetime.
This story is made possible by generous support from Merck.