Thinking back: How to deal with finding out your parent has cancer

I’ve been working on the first two chapters of my book, which focus on my mom’s diagnosis. My mom, Sally, found out she had pancreatic cancer on January 13, 2000. Nine years have passed, but I still remember that day so well. I don’t think my family will ever forget it.

If you (or someone you know) has recently been faced with the diagnosis of a loved one, here are some bits of advice that might help.

1- Listen up.
When you’re receiving traumatic news, it’s easy to zone out or get so panicked that you don’t really listen. When my mom told us the news, I was so stunned that I barely remember what was said – except, of course, for the scariest part: that she might have only 2 months to live. I was so obsessed with that 2-month deadline that I wasn’t as hopeful or supportive as she needed me to be. Meanwhile, she ended up living for 2 ½ years.

2. Question everything.
Being skeptical may sound like a form of denial (and, OK, it might be), but it’s also part of being a smart patient. Even if the first doctor’s diagnosis seems accurate, encourage your loved one to get a second opinion. Sally’s first doctor gave her 2 months to live, but when she saw a pancreatic cancer specialist in NYC, he told her he had methods that kept patients alive for up to 10 years. That’s a huge difference. Additionally, be skeptical of info or stats you find on the Internet. If you read something that worries you, ask mom or dad to consult the doctor about it.

3. Be there.
Whether you’re scared out of your mind or numb to it all (or both, as I was), try your hardest to be available to the person who has been diagnosed. Amplify your own feelings times a million, and that’s what the patient is feeling. In Sally’s case, I felt closest to her and most proud of myself when I was able to really and truly be there for her – even if it was only to bring her a cup of tea and a hug.

4. Open up.
Family members, relatives, and friends will want to be there for you. Let them. Talking about the situation may be hard, but feeling alone only makes it worse. Here’s another plus: the connections you make during this time may last a lifetime. When I think about my closest circle of friends and family, they’re all people who reached out to me and made sure I was OK. I’m forever lucky to have them.

5. Get help.
Therapy still has a negative connotation for lots of people. Guess what? It’s not just the crazies who need someone to talk to. It’s all of us. While my mom was sick and after she passed away, I saw several therapists and social workers who really helped me tremendously. It’s easier to find one than you think. You can ask your general physician for a recommendation or call your insurance company and ask for providers in your area. Or, if you’re uninsured or looking for other affordable therapy options, you can call local universities (they often provide lower rates) or Google around for therapists in your area who offer rates on a sliding scale.

Please pass this to anyone you think it might help. Especially if a friend is going through this, you might not know what to say to comfort him/her. I hope Sally’s Circle can bring them comfort.