Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Cancer Sucks: How to Deal When Someone You Love Has Been Diagnosed

One year ago today, my mom was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer, Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma. The memory is both sharp and fuzzy, somehow. It was a Tuesday; I was at work when she called. I remember going into the next cubicle, crying.  I kept working, for a while, before leaving and calling my supervisor to let her know I was headed home.

Since that date she’s completed many weeks of treatment (and the corresponding side effects). She’s completed physical therapy to re-learn how to speak and swallow. She’s currently considered in remission.

Me and my mom, having fun at chemo!

When I told my mom I was writing something about coping with a love one's cancer diagnoses, she commented, “Yeah, you know, you took that pretty hard”. I wasn’t really sure what to think about that. Pretty hard? YOU HAD CANCER!!! OF COURSE IT WAS HARD!!!! WHAT DO YOU EVEN MEAN?!

But she was right (of course). I did take it pretty hard. Certainly, that is a natural reaction, a fully human response. I had already been struggling to balance full time work with part-time graduate school, and then after her diagnosis I felt like I was coming apart at the seams.

Hearing the news that someone you love (a parent, significant other, anyone) has been diagnosed with cancer can be life changing. Today I am going to share some of the things that got me through it.

1. Take care of yourself. 

I knoooow. Go ahead and roll your eyes. This is what you hear all over the place. “Take Care of Yourself”. What does this even mean?! you may be asking yourself. It means many things.

It means it’s ok to not be strong. I know you want to be strong for your loved one, and that is awesome. Seriously, awesome. They need a lot of support. However, being strong for them means you are going to need extra support yourself. Whatever you do that helps you feel grounded and centered, crank it up. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually. Before my mom was diagnosed I could skip a week’s worth of exercise or “Michelle time” without too much damage if I picked it back up the next week; after she was diagnosed I needed to be extra intentional about scheduling those activities for myself. Working in an office and going to grad school online meant I did not have a lot of movement in my regular routine; giving myself intense physical activity (whether it was yoga class on Saturday or going to the gym before work) was amazing as an outlet for stress and worry. Keeping in contact with my closest friends and taking time for myself were also part of my magic combo; feel free to find yours. Balance is going to be key in this area.

2. Allow yourself to appreciate the present moment, and acknowlede success & positive moments

When all your attention is focused on taking care of someone who is fighting illness, it’s hard to not let illness be all you see. Allow yourself time to just live in the present and not dwell on the “what-ifs”.

For example, the type of cancer my mom has often returns far beyond that typical “5 year” mark that is often used in cancer prognosis. In fact, ACC has frequently been described as “relentless”. After she completed treatment which was determined to be successful, I would catch myself dismissing this REALLY AWESOME thing, that at the moment she wasn’t going to need more radiation, or chemo, or have her entire voicebox removed. Instead of acknowledging all those super awesome things, I would find myself thinking “…for now. She is cancer free…for now. But it could come back. It could come back and she will have to have her voicebox removed. It could come back in her lungs. It could come back in her bones. It could be a lot worse next time…” and so on.

This type of thinking maintains psychological stress. It diminishes one’s ability to experience positive emotions in the present. And you know what? It doesn’t prevent that future event from happening. It’s true: my mom’s cancer could return. It could not. There’s no way of knowing. And if it does return? What good does it do me to not allow myself to celebrate right now? If, God-forbid, her cancer returns, I want to have as many positive happy memories with her as I can. Not, you know, memories of her saying something positive and me countering with depressing statistics and warnings, or being so lost inside my own head that I’m not really “there” when I am with her.

We are totes awesome.

3. Take time-outs from cancer 

Schedule yourself times where you get to have a mental break from thinking about cancer. Meet a friend for coffee, plan a date night, participate in your hobbies, it doesn’t matter what the activity is as long as you stick to the “no cancer talk” rule. Taking a break from any kind of problem always allows me a clearer, fresher mind when I get back to it. Even scheduling 2 dates with that supportive friend: the first where you cry and talk about what’s going on, and the second where cancer isn’t allowed.

By setting aside blocks of time (even small ones) where you do something other than think (or talk) about cancer, it gives you a greater sense of control. No, you can’t control cancer, or make it magically disappear, but you can decide whether it will control every aspect of your life. Cancer may be part of your life, but it doesn’t have to over run every conversation, every activity, every moment of time for the rest of your life.

4. Do something that contributes & gives you a sense of purpose 

A lot of times, people think about preparing meals or doing housework, which are certainly helpful and awesome. But if you are far away (like I was, and am, aside from the 6 weeks I spent during mom’s treatment) those may not be feasible (or even what the person wants/needs).

But there are other things. If you are at a distance from your loved one, consider volunteering. Or sending cards (or crayons and coloring pages). You can make them a playlist or buy them a blender so that if they lose their ability to chew, they can still have smoothies. (I was shocked when my mom told me neither a blender nor food processor resided in her kitchen. How do you live?!).

If you can’t do anything for your loved one directly, consider volunteering. Helping others, no matter how small, has an immediate positive impact. Again, when you feel powerless against cancer, it can be the small things that show you still have the ability to act in powerful and positive ways.

So, that’s my magic formula.  Cancer is Scary (with a capital S), but Survivable. Conqureable. There are still so many positive things, and even if it feels like the numbness or anger are all consuming, those will shrink and fade with time and self-care.

Giraffe + Moms = Fun Times for Everyone!


  1. Quite insightful Ms. Michelle!! What you share is very true and helpful in getting some control when someone you care very deeply for is ill. You hardly can care for others if you are not in the best shape possible - physically or mentally.
    Your comments are absolutely true about living in the moment and not waiting for the other shoe to drop - it may never drop so have fun and enjoy those you love.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks so much Marti! I know you are no stranger to the above, I'm glad you could relate to what I wrote.

  2. Thank you for sharing your advice. I am sending good wishes to you and your mom as she continues to heal up after cancer treatment. I mentioned your post on my blog,, since I think it would help others facing or caring for someone with ACC. (Cheering you on your librarian path, too!!)

    1. How wonderful!! Thank you so much for your kind words and linking to this post on your own blog. One can never have too many resources or too much information. And "Yay" for librarianship! :-)