On the 15th of March 2018, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. We’d all been completely convinced it would turn out to be nothing, she’d had the lump for months and no medical professional ever seemed worried, always citing it would be hormone related. The lump moved, it hurt, it wasn’t uneven, we really saw no cause for concern, until one day our friend, who happened to be a nurse, asked to see the lump. My mum had been talking about how she’d been to the doctors several times and never been referred, so our friend wanted to take a look. After feeling it, she was shocked, and said my mum had to go back to the doctors ASAP to get this checked again. My mum didn’t do so for a few more weeks until I booked her an appointment, and that doctor did refer her to a breast clinic for a screening. Within a week she had an appointment there, and a week later we received the results. They told us that the mammogram showed nothing, the ultrasound had showed only what appeared to be a benign lump, but that the needle biopsy had showed up cancer cells. Turns out, the lump the doctor had been feeling was benign, but growing behind it was a cancerous tumour that could have gone unnoticed if the biopsy hadn’t been done. I remember clearly when I started to realise it was bad news. It had been an hour past my mum’s appointment time and I’d heard nothing from her. My boyfriend who was with me at the time was reassuring me the appointment was probably just late, but shortly afterwards I heard my dad walk down the stairs and pause at the door, and I just knew. The look on his face said it all, and I just fell into him, crying my eyes out. I remember repeatedly asking him “What are we going to do?” At the time, I felt powerless and like our lives were crumbling around us.
Chances are, if you’ve ever experienced having a parent with cancer, you may have had a similar reaction. It can feel like your life is ruined, I know it felt that way for me at the beginning. If you’ve recently found out your parent has cancer, my next sentence may sound crazy, but life can go on. In between the appointments and the treatment, there can be happy times still, or times when it doesn’t even feel like it’s happening. Me and my mum still go out, we still watch movies on the weekend, we go shopping, we even have a laugh. It may seem so difficult, and you may be sat reading this now feeling as far from ‘having a laugh’ as humanly possible, but you’re not alone, and I’m going to share some ways me and my family have learnt to cope, that I hope will help you.
One of the most important things I found was trying to keep as normal a life as possible. For me and my family, I was surprised how quickly this happened, within a couple of weeks we were doing things as if the diagnoses hadn’t even happened. It was quite surprising actually, shortly after the diagnoses, my family and I went out for a meal with other members of the family. They all seemed really down, presumably because they hadn’t seen my mum since they heard about the diagnoses, but me, my mum, and my dad were all smiling and happy. Eventually they lightened up too, and my nan even pulled me aside and said she was shocked how upbeat everyone was being. Your parent is still your parent with cancer, and although it’s not easy at first, eventually things start to get easier and you realise that you and your parent can still do the things you used to, and that your whole life doesn’t have to be dominated by it.
Another thing I found to be helpful was deciding whether or not I wanted to talk to people about it when I went out. My friends for the most part were really good at detecting whether or not I wanted to get support and have a chat about my mum, or if I wanted to just go out as if it wasn’t happening. Alternatively, lots of family friends have spoken to us about it loads, and that isn’t the only thing you’d want to speak about. There are certain days I get down about it and do want to talk about it, but there’s others I like just living normally, as does my mum, so if someone is talking too much about it and it’s getting you down, you’re completely within your rights to ask them to change the subject.
I found for myself, it was a good idea to know what was going on. I go to a lot of the consultations with my mum as I like to know what's happening and find it helpful to understand her treatment and her illness. When my mum first found out about her cancer, there was some confusion and she thought she had stage 3, but it turned out she had grade 3 (which refers to the type of cancer and not how far it's gone along). After that, I decided to go to her appointments so I knew the facts myself. It's also helped her a lot, as she has a lot to remember so when people go with her, it means she can ask if she's gotten confused or forgotten something the doctor or consultant had told her.
Out of all of the advice I can give you, if you only take one piece, it would be this; there are going to be bad days, but that's okay. Of course, for lots of people, life does go on and you don't spend all day dwelling on it, but even then, you're still going to have off days. My mum has been really lucky with her chemotherapy, she's been very well most of the time and has just needed help with bits as she's tired. The times she is unwell though, it makes me feel so low as I realise exactly what's happening and it feels real. That's okay, you can have bad days, but know there will be good days as well, and that it won't always feel bad. If you're feeling depressed, angry, upset, or anything, take some time for yourself and accept that sometimes, things won't always feel fine, but that's normal. You're going through a lot here, it's natural to feel down about it sometimes, but there's always people around for you.
If your parent has cancer, you're not alone, and that's so important to hold onto. You may often feel alone, chances are most of your friends or family don't understand, but there are other young people like you who are battling the same battles, and there is help available. If you have friends and family around you, you should never feel embarrassed about speaking to them about these things, and they know you personally so can try to help you. Aside from friends and family though, if you live in the UK, you can call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00, which is open Monday to Friday 9am - 8pm. You can talk to them about anything, and if you need to speak to someone medically trained, they have nurses who you can talk to. Macmillan also have a forum for people affected by cancer, and has its own section for family and friends. If you're in the US, you can also try the American Cancer Society who have a 24 hour support line on 1-800-227-2345. You can also speak to regular helplines such as Childline and The Samaritans if you need emotional support, they'll be able to talk through your worries and suggest ways to cope. If you feel it is taking a real toll on your mood, you may want to consider speaking to a doctor or a counsellor.
You never have to be alone with this. Hang in there, you can do this, and I truly wish you and your family the best.