Mixed race mother and daughter using laptop together

So Your Parent Has Cancer, Now What?

Do’s and don’ts for when the most important person in your life is facing death.

December 9, 2017
8 mins read

Do: Tell those around you

It’s important to have a support system in times of need. While it might be tempting not to talk about something as scary and real as cancer, releasing thoughts and feelings is therapeutic. Whether it’s friends, roommates, coworkers or even professors, talking about problems with those close to you helps. When you have a bad day, they’ll already understand why and they’ll be more prepared to help you. The burden of an illness in the family is too much to suffer through alone, so let others alleviate the pain. Because everybody experiences life differently, chances are you’ll never completely agree with and feel comforted by what others tell you, but it’s the thought that counts.

Don’t: Feel Pressured to Share the Information

As a student, school is seen as the top priority in life. When family issues threaten school performance, it’s smart to let professors know what’s going on. In an ideal world, students would feel comfortable speaking with their professors about personal issues that impact their studies, but that’s not always the case. If a parent’s cancer poses no threat to academics, then it’s fine to keep it on the downlow. In addition to professors, it might be difficult to discuss the issue with peers. Some have no problem publicizing their issues with mere acquaintances, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping the diagnosis within a small circle of well-known friends and family.

Do: Educate yourself about the disease

Evolution hardwired curiosity into the human brain, so it’s natural to want to expand your knowledge on a subject that isn’t exactly common knowledge. Even as health experts learn more about the disease, the terror and heartbreak surrounding the word “cancer” sends shock down a person’s spine when a diagnosis is first announced. It’s scary and there’s no cure and people die from it. A way to take control over the word is to educate yourself on it. Unless you’re studying to become an Oncologist, you probably never planned to know about how cancer is treated and what the side effects of that treatment were, but this knowledge will become important, and learning about the unknown is a way to take control over it.

Don’t: Obsess over the details

In your Google searches for more information about cancer, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia or Cancer.org. Morbid curiosity may lead one to information on prognosis, but it’s best to stay away from that. Average survival rates are simply numbers curated from pools, and an individual’s number may lie lower or higher on the scale of life expectancy. Trust in the medical professionals to provide the most accurate information on their patient. Based off of time, children typically die after their parents, meaning that children usually grow up to see their parents die. Even though this is a mostly known fact, it’s still jarring to see it happen in front of your eyes. As a college student, you’re only on the brink of starting your life, and the possibility of a parent not seeing you grow into the adult they raised you to be is scary. It’s not how you pictured the end of their life in your mind. Obsessing over the inevitability over a parent’s death from cancer or otherwise will get you nowhere, so put in the effort to enjoy their company while they are still there.

Do: Spend time with friends

It may feel like it’s time to spend every minute amongst family, or you may have the urge to spend every minute with friends to avoid family responsibilities. Whatever your reaction is, it’s important to find a balance. Friendship is important at all times in life, especially emotionally challenging times. With an increased level of emotional vulnerability, it’s easy to feel lonely. You might not want to burden others with your pain, but true friends will appreciate you reaching out when needed. Loneliness has actually been linked with health problems such as high blood pressure, diminished immunity, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline. You have the responsibility to take care of yourself mentally and physically for the sake of your parent, and friends can help you to achieve this.

Don’t: Be jealous of their problems

Spending a lot of time with students whose parents don’t have cancer opens your eyes to a different way to view the world. Cancer changes your perspective on life overnight, and hearing your friend complain about boy problems for the eighth time in one week may seem like the most pathetic excuse for a problem. Who cares if Johnny from math is sending you mixed messages? My parent might die soon! Try your best to acknowledge that pain and sadness isn’t a competition. Even if someone’s problems stem from a position of privilege, they still feel the same emotions as you, and their problems are just as valid. Just know it is okay to leave a conversation if it becomes too painful.

Do: Your work

Life doesn’t stop for cancer. The world keeps on turning, and assignments keep on coming. Keep professors updated, but do your best to complete work in a timely fashion. Your parent probably doesn’t want you falling behind on account of them. The stress of an uncompleted assignment is agonizing when added on top of the stress of cancer. Make genuine attempts to finish all work. Think of it as a character-building experience.

Don’t: Prioritize work over family

You’re a human first and student second. As important as an assignment might seem on the syllabus, a good professor will understand if you need an extension. They’re there to help you, and they recognize that it’s better to turn in excellent work late than messy work on time. A school shouldn’t make you feel unsupported, and family should always come first. Even Vice President Joe Biden recognized this fact in a memo sent to his staff, stating he does “not expect nor [does he] want any of [them] to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work.” Biden knows what’s up. Cancer causes you to find balance in all areas of your life, but make sure to always prioritize family over everything.

Bethany Knickerbocker, Emerson College

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Bethany Knickerbocker

Emerson College
Creative Writing

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