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When A Parent Is Diagnosed With Cancer

It is hard enough dealing with cancer as a survivor, but what happens when one of your parents is diagnosed with cancer too?
PUBLISHED May 14, 2020
Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.

My mom has cancer. 

Excuse me a minute while I go recover from that massive punch in the gut.

We all know that hearing anyone telling you they have cancer just flat out stinks, but when it is a parent, it’s unchartered waters. That’s just about the top of my biggest fears…. with the exception of hearing one’s own cancer diagnosis, which oh wait, I’ve already witnessed. 

I thought that once I was diagnosed with breast cancer almost 10 years ago, when I was 32 years old, that I had taken one for the team. I thought for sure no one else I knew would get it, let alone my parents. This is the nice naïve world I lived in for a long time. Then, this past January, my mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer and my world was shattered yet again by cancer. It’s a story I am sick of repeating.

When I received my own cancer diagnosis, I was completely caught off guard and unaware of how to handle it. However, I navigated the waters and found myself safe on the shores of the other side of a diagnosis. Almost 10 years later and I am grateful to say I am still standing. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for me. 

I deal with constant fears (that still linger even after all this time), I struggle with PTSD & cancer triggers and anxiety all thanks to cancer. I have been in therapy for years to move past all the emotional baggage that cancer brings. Then when my mom was diagnosed, it was like reliving my own cancer nightmare again, but instead, watching helplessly as my mom was going through her own battle.

Here’s the catch that I was not prepared for: parents seem to handle a cancer diagnosis quite differently than their kids. Or maybe it is just my mom? She was calm, cool and collected when she told the news of her uterine cancer diagnosis. It was like watching her tell me the washing machine broke or something trivial that happens every day. She was annoyed and wasn’t excited about the process but honestly wasn’t worried.  She said that it was a totally treatable with surgery and even if it had spread, the doctors were confident it could easily be treated. 

She was much older than me during her diagnosis so in her eyes, it was totally different.  It was a different type of cancer than me, and basically it was a different everything. That was why she was so calm. 

WHAT??

In my eye’s cancer was cancer. End of discussion. How was she not screaming, crying, angry, frightened, etc.  How was she not having the same reaction as I did when I heard I had breast cancer? This made me so mad. Then upset. Then scared. Then mad at myself. Was I seriously getting mad at my mom for her reaction to her own cancer diagnosis? I mean, I have preached for years that every person’s cancer is their own and therefore their reaction to it should be their own. Yet, I was mad at my mom for, as I put it, blowing off her cancer diagnosis

Looking back, I realized my reaction to her diagnosis was because I was so scared for her. I didn’t want her to have to go through all the horrible physical and emotional trauma I faced with cancer over the years. It has been a nonstop uphill climb for me, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I didn’t care that her uterine cancer was treatable, most likely didn’t spread and most likely would mean surgery and that was it. All that went through my head was: cancer is cancer, cancer is cancer, cancer is cancer….and it has now affected mom.

I had flashbacks to my own diagnosis and treatment constantly as my mom went through her treatment. I had to remind myself daily that my cancer was not back and that her cancer, her treatment plan was different than mine. I had to force myself into the role of caregiver, not cancer patient.

 I am thrilled to say that her surgery was a success and she is fully recovered. The cancer was contained to the uterus and her prognosis is amazingly positive. I am so happy, and still scared, as I never know what will happen next in the world of cancer. 

I am sad that I now have to share the title of cancer survivor with her because I was hoping no one else I knew would ever have to go through cancer. It’s one of the worst experiences of my life but yet, taught me a different side to cancer. I became a co-survivor. Watching a parent experience cancer is really the worst. It can bring out the worst fears of your own diagnosis too.  However, it can bring out the best knowing you can relate, knowing you can support them in their time of need too.

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