My dad has cancer: how do I cope?

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"Being told my dad has cancer, was like a freight train had run directly into my life at full speed." Ashley | Photo Credit: ©Laura Lachman / BehanceCreative Commons

My dad has cancer: how do I cope?

The moment I heard the words "your dad has cancer", my world spun out of its axis. I was left grappling with a myriad of questions. How would I navigate this storm? What could I possibly do to support him? 

At 21, I was immersed in the vibrant, optimistic world of Montana State University. I was living that quintessential college dream where, even on a meager $400 monthly budget, you feel like you're on top of the world. That was, until the day cancer invaded our lives. 

Despite my lean budget, I felt rich. I was in love with my cozy little house, my roommates were my closest allies, and I was surrounded by a sprawling network of friends. Our days were filled with impromptu barbecues, university events, and vibrant nights in the city's "Bermuda Triangle" – a trio of bars clustered on a single city block. As the school year began, I even found myself falling for a boy. 

But then, like a freight train hurtling off its tracks, the news of my dad's cancer crashed into my life. I remember waking up each day, feeling like I was on an island of pain that no one else could possibly comprehend. How could anyone who hasn't seen their dad grapple with cancer truly understand my turmoil? 

"My Dad has cancer, and I'm struggling to keep it together."

My dad has cancer: his throat cancer diagnosis

Like most cancer diagnoses, it came as a surprise. My dad initially had no idea he had throat cancer. He found out about it after making a routine visit to the ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) due to his persistently dry throat.

However, rather than give him medication or antibiotics to take care of a minor infection, the ENT Specialist gave my dad the shocking news that one of his vocal cords wasn’t functioning. This meant there was a very high chance that what he was experiencing were actually the symptoms of throat cancer. The ENT referred him to a specialist, who did a biopsy and made a diagnosis.

Within a week, my dad was undergoing a battery of tests. The biopsy came back as malignant, stage III. He was referred to another hospital, where he underwent PET-CT scans, MRIs, and other tests to figure out whether the cancer was in the bone or not.

The good news was that these tests came back negative. The bad news, of course, was that it was still cancer. While everyone assured us that the surgery would be relatively simple, nobody slept for weeks.

"Cancer is a word, not a sentence. It's a chapter in a book, not the end of a story."

Joe Wasser

The emotional rollercoaster of my dad's cancer

The emotional toll of my dad's cancer diagnosis was an all-encompassing, life-altering event. I can still recall the sterile hospital smell, the anxiety of waiting, the hushed voices of physicians, and the crushing realization that my dad was battling cancer. My mind was a whirlwind of emotions, swinging between hope and despair. Will he be okay? was the question that haunted me during those long hours, days, and weeks. 

His battle wasn't over after surgery 

Post-surgery care, radiation, chemotherapy - his journey was far from over. Witnessing his strength dwindling was heart-wrenching. But amidst the pain, I saw his unyielding spirit and determination to fight. My emotions were a tempest, some days filled with profound sadness, others with a mechanical focus on tasks just to keep my mind occupied. 

Understanding the cancer diagnosis 

One of the first steps in coping with your dad's cancer diagnosis is understanding what you're up against. Knowledge is power, and knowing the type of cancer, its stage, and treatment options can help you feel more in control. 

Finding support

Having a strong support network is essential during these trying times. It's okay to ask questions, to cry, to need someone just to be there. For me, support came from close friends, family, and a personal therapist. I also found solace in cancer support groups and organizations. 

Another vital aspect of coping is emotional support, which can come in many forms. For me, it was talking to friends and family about what I was going through, and finding comfort in their similar experiences or just their listening ear. 

Self-care and self-healing 

I learned the importance of self-care early on. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, ensuring adequate sleep - these became non-negotiable parts of my routine. I also found mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, incredibly helpful in managing stress and maintaining emotional balance. 

Remember, it's okay to feel overwhelmed, to cry, to ask for help. Reach out to the resources available to help you navigate this challenging time, from support groups to mental health professionals. 

Communicating with my Dad 

Learning how to communicate effectively with my dad during this time was crucial. Reassuring him that we were in this together, that he wasn't alone, helped lift his spirits. It was also crucial for me to be honest about my feelings, allowing him to understand that it was okay for him to share his feelings too. 

Communicating with my Dad 

Learning how to communicate effectively with my dad during this time was crucial. Reassuring him that we were in this together, that he wasn't alone, helped lift his spirits. It was also crucial for me to be honest about my feelings, allowing him to understand that it was okay for him to share his feelings too. 

What not to say when someone’s dad has cancer

The moment I first uttered the words "my dad has cancer" is forever imprinted in my memory. I was in our split-level home, having just ended a distressing phone call with my mom, tears streaming down my face. Almost in sync with my hanging up, there was a knock at the door. It was the girl from the apartment downstairs, unsuspectingly armed with a pile of mail and some inquiries about bills. The sight of me must have taken her aback, for she gasped as she took in my disheveled state.

Red-faced and embarrassed, I felt compelled to justify my tears. I was afraid that she would think me overly emotional or foolish for crying so hard. "My dad has cancer. He was just diagnosed," I blurted out, and I saw her flinch. "Cancer? What kind?" she asked. I shared with her the scant details I knew about his diagnosis and his prognosis, which was, thankfully, positive. She gave a small shake of her head, awkwardly hugged me, and then left. "Well," I thought, "the cat's out of the bag now." 

Her reaction, while gentle and compassionate, made the reality of my dad's illness hit home. I was no longer just a 20-something college student. I had become the girl whose dad has cancer. Even today, the memory of that awkward conversation, the feeling of being so starkly vulnerable, hoping for kindness from the person hearing my news, still haunts me. 

Dealing with unsupportive friends and family during cancer: two diverse women posing at camera supporting each other

Dealing with unsupportive friends and family during cancer

In the ensuing weeks, I embarked on the challenging journey of sharing my dad's diagnosis with my other friends. Their reactions varied widely. Considering that about 13 million people are diagnosed with cancer annually in the U.S., quite a few of my friends and classmates had personal experiences with the disease. Their responses were the most empathetic.

They understood the feeling of helplessness and the odd embarrassment that comes with the reality of a loved one's illness. My friends were sensitive and compassionate. However, there were others - people I cared for deeply - who didn't handle the news as well. I vividly recall one girl's tactless comment about the exorbitant cost of cancer treatments, predicting financial ruin for my family. She said this with a slap to her knee, as if it were a casual topic of conversation.

What I learned from my dad’s cancer

Throughout this journey, I learned the importance of staying strong for my dad. His battle wasn't just physical; it was emotional too. We had open conversations about his fears, hopes, and feelings. We spent quality time together –watching movies, sharing meals, talking about everything. This not only helped him cope but also aided my healing process. 

In the end, my dad's cancer diagnosis taught me a lot about resilience, empathy, and the power of love. It was the toughest period in our lives, but it also brought us closer together, strengthening our bond and teaching us to cherish every moment we have together.

What I also learned from this experience of my dad's cancer is this: there’s no way to ever know what is going on in someone else’s heart and mind, or how hard someone is taking something you might wrongly view as trivial or tied up in a bow. 

While I needed understanding and validation, I got more than enough judgment and insensitivity.

The takeaway for me was obvious: don’t be an asshole to people who have sick family members. Even if you can’t think of the right words, just say something like, “That must be so hard.”

Today, my dad's cancer is in full remission and doing just fine. Our family was lucky, but I still carry that lesson in compassion and understanding around with me everywhere I go. 

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Article by
Ashley Arcel

Ashley Arcel, the author of "My Dad Has Cancer: how do I Cope?," is a copywriter, editor, and social media specialist living in Montana. She is the founder of Proline Creative and is currently working on her first book.