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Sally Taylorson-Lavers was 27 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She describes the impact her mum’s diagnosis had on their family, and gives 10 tips for coping when a parent has cancer.
Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014.
She had seen her doctor about some puckering on her breast, and we met at my office in London, where she was doing some coaching, before she went to get her test results.
I told her to call me as soon as she had the results. I was so sure it would be fine that I went to the gym after work. As I left, realising her appointment had finished, I called her. ‘How did it go?’ I asked cheerily, expecting it to be nothing. A pause. ‘Well, darling. They say it’s cancer.’
I cried all the way home. It was raining and I used my umbrella to shield me from the passers-by.
What had just happened? We don’t get cancer, I thought. That happens to other people. And then: Mum has cancer. Mum has cancer. My mum has cancer.
There were more tests the following day.
I met my parents that afternoon. I sat in the waiting room as they didn’t want me to come in with them. I was on my phone writing and deleting text messages to my friends. ‘I have some bad news. Mum has “the big C”.’ No, that’s ridiculous.
Mum had to wait two hours for the test results, so we walked to a pub nearby. We sat in the corner and tried to make sense of how this disease had crashed into our lives.
My father kept taking phone calls from the health insurer – that was his way of coping, by taking control of logistics. While he was outside taking a call, Mum started to cry.
She felt she had let me down and guilty that I now had a ‘mother with cancer’. I had no words to explain how wrong she was. All I could think was that it wasn’t my turn to be upset, that I had to be strong for her.
I wanted her to know that it didn’t change anything about our family. Of course, I couldn’t have known the enormous impact it would have on us.
Mum’s diagnosis changed the whole dynamic of our family.
I’m an only child and I have a very close relationship with my parents. But it can be strained at times because we aren’t always brilliant communicators.
An insightful friend recently told me that people who receive the news together often form a tightly bonded club. I know this is true of my parents, and I felt left on the outside, trying to deal with everything on my own.
In the days after Mum’s diagnosis, I felt upset, confused, numb, angry, determined and lonely. I felt that, being a grown-up, this was now my time to take care of my parent. But I also wasn’t ready to take on that responsibility. I felt like maybe I didn’t have the right to expect their support either, now that I was grown up.
As an only child I didn’t have anyone around me to speak to who would understand my situation. I held back how I was feeling for fear that seeing me upset or scared would make Mum feel worse.
I tried to visit Mum whenever she was having chemo. But I often found myself walking around outside while various discussions or treatments were happening inside, as my parents didn’t want me to be involved.
My dad and I grew further apart and were barely speaking by the end of the treatment. I was desperate for his emotional support, but unsure of how to ask for it without seeming needy when he was going through such a stressful time. He would often call me with an update on Mum’s various appointments while I was at work. I know he felt it was helpful to keep me informed, but the calls were extremely disorientating and difficult to digest in the middle of a work day.
I would ask him how he was doing, but he didn’t realise that I also wanted him to ask the same question back.
I didn’t feel that there was enough support for me. The focus at the clinic, and rightly so, was on my mum, and to a certain extent my dad as well.
The clinic offered therapy sessions for partners and carers. About two weeks after the diagnosis we went to a session held for partners and loved ones of those who had been diagnosed. When I arrived I was the only ‘child’ in the room, and I felt like I had to justify my reasons for being there.
The day after the diagnosis, I sent my friends a text, telling them the news and asking them to keep in touch on a regular basis.
I felt relieved to have told them, but I also got a number of generic responses back: ‘Cancer is awful’ (although in stronger words than that), ‘She’s strong, she will get through this’, as well as stories of family members who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer, as if everyone’s experience is the same.
Friends who simply listened and asked questions and seemed genuinely interested and concerned about what I had to say, about either Mum’s treatment or what I had learned that week, were the ones I truly appreciated and who made me feel completely supported.
This is your parent. They’ve seen you at your best and your worst. While there will be times when you’ll need to support them, they will also appreciate your honesty. Getting everything out in the open means you can start to work on a solution.
Everyone reacts to life-changing news differently. The way you interact with your parent, your immediate family, your extended family and your friends may change. Be open, honest and respectful in your conversations so that you can work through these changes together.
Showing your parent that you will show up and be by their side, no matter what, can be more powerful than knowing the right thing to say. If you can’t physically be there, sending them a text or scheduling a phone call will let them know that you are thinking about them.
Put your parent’s key dates in your diary so you can either be there or check in with them before and after.
The best way to ensure your family and friends know what you need from them to help you cope is to tell them. In times of stress, those close to us want to help, but are often unsure how. Tell them exactly what you need to feel secure and supported, and if you’re unsure, ask them to keep checking in with you.
This is likely to be a completely new experience. It’s scary, confusing and exhausting, and it’s OK to feel that way. As a concerned son or daughter, you may feel the need to put on a brave face, but you will also probably take on a lot of stress on your parent’s behalf. This is noble and I’m sure appreciated, but it’s also exhausting and it’s OK to say so.
Give as much or as little information as you’re comfortable with. People often ask questions out of concern, but sometimes it can feel like gossip, especially when talk turns to your personal relationships. Perceptive friends and family will understand if there are things you want to share or keep to yourself.
A cancer diagnosis can feel like swimming in an endless stream of appointments and treatments. Make time outside of these to create some good memories as a family. Simply planning to spend time together, even just watching a movie at home, can be something to look forward to for the whole family.
In the weeks after Mum’s diagnosis, I found myself close to tears at my desk. It was incredibly difficult, but I told my managers what I was going through. They agreed to let me take time off whenever Mum had appointments in London, or if I needed time away from the office.
You may not be comfortable discussing all your questions or concerns with your parents. Ask whether you can speak with a nurse (you’ll need your parent’s permission to ask about specific details). Or call the Breast Cancer Care Helpline. They will be able to provide the information that you’re looking for.
Care for yourself as much as you care for your parent. It might feel selfish to take time to focus on your own wellbeing, but being mentally and physically well means you’re better able to support your parent through their treatment.
Sally's website offers support for you if your parent has cancer.