How to Cope With a Parent Who Has Cancer
BY ALLYSE SHUMWAY
October 3 – the day I found out my Dad had cancer. I remember the conversation so clearly. I ran into the house, expecting to grab a quick lunch, and race out the door to work. But the moment I walked in, my parents asked me to sit down and broke the news to me. My first thought was this can’t be real. My Dad is normal; he’s healthy. He never smoked. He never drank. Everything seemed so confusing. Questions like why us, why this, and why now flashed through my head. Then, surprisingly, I was angry at the cancer – almost like it was a hated human. I couldn’t believe this was my new reality.
No matter what type of cancer is diagnosed, it's not easy being the child of a parent with cancer. I always imagined my family was immune to serious disease but, as it turns out, no one is. I felt that since I was young I didn't fully understand what having cancer meant.
My Dad's cancer was diagnosed after a dermatologist removed a small growth from his neck and the tissue was sent to be analyzed. At the onset, it didn’t seem anything to worry about. After the biopsy we learned the lymph node was cancerous. After many more tests, scans, another biopsy and every MRI imaginable, the doctors found the cancer originated from a mole on his head buried in his hair. At 56 years old my Dad, who I love and adore, was diagnosed with Stage 3B Melanoma – skin cancer. People often confuse melanoma with multiple myeloma. Whether skin cancer or blood cancer, the feelings of loss are the same.
The elite doctors at the cancer treatment center scheduled surgery to remove the cancer on his head in addition to performing a neck dissection to remove 38 additional lymph nodes. What should have been a relatively short procedure lasted over four hours while the cancerous area on his head required removal of a three inch circle of his scalp to ensure the margins were clear. The surgery was invasive and a plastic surgeon was needed to close up the gaping hole. It was difficult seeing my Dad in so much pain. Drainage tubes were in his neck and also in his head. The weeks seemed endless as intense headaches, a few hours of sleep here and there, many tears, and the phrase, “Can we do this?” emerged from everyone’s mouths. When the bandages came off we could see the huge scars cascading around his head. Another scar was visible from the back of his ear to his collar bone and then angled towards his chest. It felt like the cancer had succeeded in marking my Dad as its own.
I realized cancer was trying to change who we were. While it is a part of our life, cancer hasn’t won. Oddly enough, cancer has given our family a renewed hope in life itself. We have realized that while we can’t control its effects, we can control how we respond and how we will love and lift each other. I don’t think anyone can ever be ready when the cancer card is played. I am determined to be resilient and not let it change who I am. My dream has always been to have my Dad at my wedding, and my greatest hope is that will come true. If not, I will worry about that if and when the time comes. But for now, I choose to have hope and to be optimistic. I may not be able to control cancer, but I can control me.
As the months pass, supporting and loving my Dad has been crucial to our maintaining a strong relationship and giving us both strength. Here are a few coping skills that have helped me along the way:
- Talking openly about the situation.
- Attending appointments to meet the doctors and see first-hand what he is dealing with.
- Showing affection and telling my Dad daily how much I love him.
- Being open with my friends about the situation.
- Reading about his specific cancer so I can help him become his best advocate, show support and have increased sensitivity.
Cancer is best endured when shared with those you love and those who love you. In my family it has been extremely helpful to carry the challenge together.