Today I am in, what I described to my friend as, a quietly sad mood. One evening in January, I received a video call from my mum. I thought nothing of it and figured she had something to show me. Her shoulder had been hurting for the past week or so, and she had it examined. The x-ray showed a mottled area on the bone. This could either be an infection… or cancer.
They scheduled an appointment with an oncologist the following day. I had a panic attack and went for a long walk into the chilly, yet fresh, South London air. The next day: video call. It’s cancer. Cancer in my mum.
The floor fell out from beneath me. What followed was a series of events that took me on what has been, and continues to be, the most emotional ride of my life. My mum’s diagnosis and treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer containing the power to break bones.
This is what happens when your parent gets diagnosed with cancer:
1. Say hello to numbness
The shock of this moment is unlike anything I have ever felt. The panic in my heart overtook anything else I could begin to want to feel. There was a numbing stillness to the world around me. One minute I cried, the next I couldn’t cry at all. The thought and fear of what might come next consumed everything else.
2. You are reminded you cannot control everything… except how you respond
Most problems can be solved. You can make just about any situation better, somehow. You cannot physically grasp the cancer in your parent’s body. It exists only to destruct, until a doctor can make informed decisions on how to lessen its effect. The time it takes to diagnose and decide on a treatment plan can feel like infinity.
In the meantime, you learn how to be there for your parent, what they need, how they need it, when they need it. You can only try to make them feel more comfortable, loved, and not alone.
Make yourself comfortable because your heart is breaking slowly over the pain in the body of the person who unconditionally loves you. Your heart needs comfort.
3. You realise your parent is not as invincible as you thought
If your parent is like my mum, they can do anything. Open ketchup packets, make you feel better after a bad day, take a medical team to Haiti. The number one risk factor for most cancers is AGE. You think you’re getting older, your parent is getting even older… and uncontrollably more susceptible to bad changes in DNA.
This is when you see them differently. You begin to realise that time is precious, and maybe you’ve taken for granted the precious healthy time. You realise your parent is, in fact, only human.
4. You realise your parent is the strongest person you know
As treatments begin: surgeries, blood draws, bone marrow biopsies, shots, endless scans, pills, stem cell transplant, unfortunate side effects: you realise your parent is the strongest person you know. They are taking a physical, emotional, life-or-death situation and… pushing forward. Your parent is fighting to regain normalcy. It’s inspiring.
5. You will want to know as much as you can… to an extent
You’ll begin to want to understand everything about the diagnosis and prognosis. You’ll venture into the mysterious Google search page two — scavenging for anything to convince you your parent will be okay, okay very soon, and okay for a very long time.
Until you circle around the same information in different words. Until you realise you cannot think about it constantly. You must also fight and begin to pursue a new normal.
6. You begin to realise everything is now different. Life will not return to the way it was before
You must find new joy, a new normal. Life now includes joys in simply learning your parent is having a good day. New joy that finds quietly sad days a little normal because you’re dealing with watching the person who loves you most go through the fight of their life. Their reality is your reality, and you will be there with them, just as they have always been there with you.
As a cancer epidemiologist, currently at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, studying cancer risk at the population level, this experience of cancer on the personal level brings new reality to the meaning of cancer risk in the results of my own work.