Mom and Dad have cancer: is there a right or wrong way for their daughter to cope?

by Nota Vakola

Image of a woman placing her hands over her ears in denial of the news her mom and dad have cancer.

There's no right or wrong way to deal with a parent's illness, but what's a girl to do? Well, she needs to write a list of all the ways she plans to deal with the curveballs.


©Saltodemata / Adobe Stock

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I never really subscribed to the whole ‘I never thought this would happen to me’ sentiment. If something is likely to happen to anyone, then why not me? So when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer seven years ago, I didn’t curse the universe for our misfortune.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice – so they say

In early Spring my mother felt a growth in her right breast. I can only imagine how scary that feels. She was subsequently diagnosed with an aggressive form of hormone-related breast cancer. Talk about a double whammy; seven years apart. Cancer. Seriously? WTF? Mom and Dad have cancer! It was more than a little bit harder to be as understanding the second time around: like seriously, what’s your beef with us, universe? But what’s a girl to do? Well, she needs to write a list. A list of the different ways those two curveballs were dealt with. Two different moments in time, united by one-word cancer, and my family.

Mom and dad have cancer

Then. Seven years ago I was twenty years of age. Not five, not ten, not even 15. So, to learn about my father’s cancer through a slip-up, an inadvertent remark, namely my aunt making an offhand comment, stung a little. And by a little, I mean quite a lot. Especially considering that the doctor’s original prognosis was that he had about 17 months to live. When was anyone going to tell me? At his wake? Fret not though, friends, daddy is still alive and kicking. Had I not accidentally found out about it, my parents would have kept me in the dark until they saw how he responded to treatment. To this day, I’m convinced they’ve only let on to me about 60 percent of the entire situation.

Now. With my mom’s cancer, everything was different. From day one I was involved in everything, even before we knew for sure that the growth was malignant. I’ve escorted her to doctor’s appointments, operations, tests, treatments. I have learned, and can flawlessly pronounce cancer terminology like I’m a freaking pro ( hit me up Grey’s Anatomy casting directors). I have gone wig shopping, and I’ve waited in line for hours to get the needed drugs and documents. Speaking of documents. The paperwork involved is climate-change level serious. And, I now know everything that’s going on inside my mum’s body. Everything. Which is a little weird but, and you may call me competitive, I hoped I’d get to be the only thing to grow inside my mother (yes, I am an only child, shush).

My takeaway: then + now. Cancer is a scary thing. Finding out your parent -or both – have cancer is even more terrifying. But I’ve found out that the more involved I was allowed to be, the more research I could do, the better. I could get informed and ask questions. Knowing what the beast looks like, knowing its name, and seeing what’s being done to fight it, makes it all the less terrifying.

Read more: Laying bare the emotions of talking about cancer

Dropping the C bomb

Then. Seven years ago saying the word ‘cancer’ out loud was a challenge at first. I can only presume hearing it was almost as tough. For the longest time, it was only our immediate family and close friends that knew about my dad’s illness. Very slowly, and only after he had been doing well and getting positive results, did I start telling other people. When the conversation would go that way, of course. People’s reactions varied from shock and pity to shock and excessive positiveness. All of which would progressively become easier to stomach, the more I came to terms with dad’s cancer privately.

Now. ‘Cancer’ and ‘chemotherapy’ are part of my everyday vernacular. I whip that stuff out anyplace, anytime. It does not matter if I met you ten minutes ago. If you ask me what I did today and it happens to be the day I shaved my mom’s head, ’cause her hair started falling off due to chemo, I’m gonna tell you. This is a big part of my life at the moment, and constantly trying to talk around it would be exhausting. I do apologize for sometimes leading with “took my mom to chemo,” instead of “my mom has cancer.” Honestly, I’ve just lost track of who knows what, at this point.

My takeaway: then + now. I often forget that this is not a casual conversation for some people, and I end up being a bit clumsy with how I bring it up. But talking about it, cancer, normalizing it, helps me take away even more of its power. It is part of our lives, yes, but it’s not all of it. So, I’m likely to mention my mother’s chemo-related side effects and then go into discussing Grey’s Anatomy finale straight after. (It’s not every season that nobody gets gravely injured right at the last minute of the episode, you know.)

50 Shades of Dealing

Then. Seven years ago when I heard my dad had cancer, I spent so much of my energy being angry. Because no one told me straight away, I didn’t feel the sadness hit till quite a bit later. At which point, I cried. Once. One night, that was it. And then I felt guilty. Why didn’t I cry more? Did I not care enough? Was the idea I had in my head of being a highly emotional person, a lie? So then I would fake it for the world, or blame denial. Eventually, when I saw my father was doing better, I stuck with “I just knew it in my bones he’d be fine, since the very beginning.” And that was that.

Now. Then my mom’s diagnosis came around and, boy oh boy, was there crying. And laughing. And getting angry again. Because now, I had the emotional knowledge to deal with it. Unbeknownst to me, I had acquired and practiced it internally, silently over the past seven years. Dad, with his wonderful attitude, his jokes, and his immense innate strength, had created a platform for us to talk, and share, and feel freely, and ultimately overcome. Finally, I felt no guilt. It was not about not caring, it was about not knowing. And having that common safe space has allowed me to not only help my mother more efficiently but also help myself.

My takeaway: then + now. There’s no right or wrong way to deal with a parent’s illness. I cried when I needed to cry; still do occasionally. I punched a wall when that’s what I needed – it was not the first time either -but it’s not the place or time for that story. I laughed and went out dancing with my friends on the days I felt optimistic, and I stayed up all night scared and grieving on the days I didn’t. And it was all okay, and all necessary for my survival.

Seven years ago I would have never guessed I’d be making this list. Nor would I, two months ago. But here we are, and you know what? While there are good days and there are bad, I’ve never felt stronger. Stronger into who I am as a woman and a daughter; stronger into who we are as a family; confident in how to navigate this crazy roller-coaster called life. The courage to overcome hardship is not of limited supply, upon which I draw each day until it runs out. It’s a muscle, and the more exercise it gets, the more it acts as a reinforcement of my character, it preps me for dealing with anything that may get thrown my way. And if we’re honest, it’s the only kind of work-out I do anyway.

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Article by Nota Vakola

Growing up an only child, Nota Vakola had to heavily rely on her vivid imagination to escape the dreadful clutches of boredom. Her parents hoped she'd grow out of it, but thankfully she didn't; because grown-up life needs even more escaping.



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