It's OK if you're not OK


When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, all hell breaks loose inside.

Thoughts race, things feel unreal... and you know, somewhere deep inside you, that things will never be "normal" again. Nothing will be the same.

In 2008 my mother was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She was treated with a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. We thought she was fine. We assumed we were done with this cruel cancer business. But in 2010, a month before my wedding, my mother's cancer returned. In both her lungs.

I remember when she told me. We were on the phone. She had been having this cough for a while. She called and told me, that no, in fact she was not fine; that her X-ray had shown that she had two cancerous nodules in each lung. I do not remember what happened next but according to my husband I threw my cell phone across the room and began screaming as though I was being physically crushed by a cement wall. And that was a perfect description of how I felt.

I was so angry and horrified and terrified. All at the same time. I could barely breathe. It was a relief when the tears actually came because I thought I might explode from the mix of things I was feeling. I told myself to breathe, and the more I breathed the more the tears came.

Why? Why was this happening to us? Weren't we good people? Didn't we try to do the right thing? Hadn't we gone through this cancer thing already? As the second round of tests and then treatment began I could feel myself getting bitter. I could feel the resentment building up in me each time I entered our treatment center with my mom. I could feel it when I saw seemingly healthy mothers with their daughters. I could feel it when I thought about the prospect of losing my mother at a young age. I began to lose interest in my upcoming wedding, in my work and in my relationships. And on top of it, I felt guilty and ashamed for feeling what I was feeling. Wasn't I supposed to be strong? Wasn't I always the optimistic type? Where was my brave face? My Midwestern resolve? So on top of the feelings I had about my mom's cancer I was judging myself for having those feelings.

It was a very hard period for me. I felt like I couldn't talk to anyone about what was going on with me, and I realized that I needed to get some help. I needed to find someone who I could talk to. There are so many resources out there. I just needed to be ready to use them.

I began seeing a counselor who specialized in working with adult children who had a parent with cancer. I was also my mother's primary caregiver, which added to my feelings of resentment and fear. What if I was doing it "wrong?" Why was I the one who had to do this?

On my first session my counselor asked me how I was holding up. I immediately launched into what was going on with my mother. How her treatment was going, what her latest test results were, how she was coping with the side effects of chemo, etc. After I was done, my counselor looked at me and smiled. "What about you?"

Me? What about me?

Nobody had asked me that in a long time. "Oh, you know," I said, "I'm OK. All things considered."

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