“Dearest Gala,Today my mom went to the doctor for a routine pap smear. In October they had found some abnormal cells, and in April they took a biopsy and today she received the results; they revealed she had pre-cancerous cells. The doctor did a special procedure where the cells are burned out of her cervix, but since the cells were in such a strange place, they had to burn a part of her cervix, meaning she can now no longer have children (thankfully she has my younger brother, younger sister, and I).My question, Gala, is how can I be strong for her? I feel completely distraught over the fact that my 34-year old mother may have cancer, and I’m not sure what to do. I can’t even imagine how she may be feeling, but I am only 14 years old and very, very confused. I want her to be okay. I want her to be healthy. It has been my greatest fear for as long as I can remember to lose her in any way; she raised me. I am not sure who I can talk to about this, because I want to be strong and take over the mother position for awhile, so she won’t have to stress.My mom has no idea how upset I am, and I am so incredibly worried and distraught over this. I don’t know who to talk to, or how to healthily deal with my emotions. Please, offer some input. Thank you very much.”
I am so, so sorry that you’re going through this. It is a horrific position to be in, & all your fears & concerns are perfectly normal & okay. I think that anyone in a similar position would be at least as freaked out as you are right now. You’re going to be okay though, I promise.
Nobody wants their parents to die. To those of us with parents who are still alive & kicking — gardening in the afternoons, drinking coffee, flicking the newspaper pages with gusto — sometimes it seems like the ultimate nightmare to consider them not being around any more. My parents are 14,401 kilometres (8948 miles) away from me & I still make time to talk to them every day! That’s the thing about parents: no matter how maddening they can be at times, they are our parents. We love them. No one can replace them, & that’s what makes the thought of losing them so terrifying.
There is good news, though! While at the moment you don’t know if your mother actually has cancer or not, the fact remains that cancer is not a death sentence. Not any more. There are over 10 million cancer survivors in the United States today, with numbers growing all the time. Lance Armstrong, Kylie Minogue, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert DeNiro & Kris Carr, an actress turned director, are all wonderful examples of people who have mercilessly kicked cancer’s ass! It can be done. Kris Carr in particular is an incredibly inspiring woman. I met her at the start of May, & she is amazing — so calm & so happy, she just radiates light.
Q: What are some of the misconceptions people have about cancer?A: I think for me the main misconception is that in the world of cancer the outcome is either cure or death and there is nowhere in between. I am an example of someone who lives with cancer, manages it and still has a perfectly normal dynamic life. Cancer has opened me up to the best life possible. It hasn’t been a gift but it has been an extreme catalyst for personal revolution and I am grateful for it. Truth be told, we are all saddled with something. Adversity is universal. But what you do with it determines the quality of your life. (Meet Kris Carr)
One thing you do need to be aware of is that things around your house are going to start changing. Here are some things you can do to make the transition easier.
Be open to change
It’s a biggie. So many of us think change sucks, but without change, we would have no birth, new relationships, great haircuts or… well, anything! (No internet! The horror!)
So try to take a more open view to the changes that are going to occur inside your family over the next little while. There will be upheaval & adjustment & bleary-eyed mornings & yawn-inducing late nights & boredom & chaos… just like your old life, really, but moreso. Try not to let it get to you. Don’t feel like you have to control everything, because you don’t, & you can’t even if you want to.
Talk to your brother & sister about the fact that things are going to start changing. Ask for their help & tell them how much you’d appreciate it if they could do all they can to keep the family united.
Just allow life to happen. Let it unfold organically. Deep breaths, baby. You can do it!
Do what you can to help
Every little thing you can do that makes your mother’s life easier will be a huge help. If that means you need to learn to cook something other than pancakes, then get a cookbook out of the library & start sizzling! If it means walking to the markets alone to buy the groceries for the week, try that too.
Obviously you won’t be able to fully take over your mother’s role as head of the house. There is so much involved, from wake-up calls in the morning to budgets to late library books, that it is quite an incredible task. (Especially for a 14 year old girl! I can’t imagine doing it myself, & I’m almost twice your age!) But, like I say, every little bit helps. Ask your mother where your assistance would be most valuable, & then divvy up some of the other chores between your siblings.
Another thing you might like to do is to sit down with your mother & discuss enlisting someone else’s help. Of course, this will all depend on how well she is: fingers crossed that it’s a false alarm & she is totally fine. But if she isn’t, having her best friend or sister or mother or even distant cousin move into a spare bedroom or stay nearby would be a wonderful thing. Just another adult around to help run the house & assist in providing a little structure.
Take care of yourself
While your mother is definitely going to be your primary concern for a while, it’s really important that you take time for yourself, too. You need to allow yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, & your emotions will cycle & change rapidly. At times you might feel ashamed by some of those feelings — for example, you might feel left out or embarrassed about being seen in public with your mother — but you need to just allow yourself to feel it. If you don’t, you’ll go nuts! A lot of us bury our emotions, thinking that if we pretend everything is okay & “put on a happy face”, all the bad ugly junk in our heads will disappear. Well, it doesn’t. You need to acknowledge your emotions, because they’re screaming at you!
What do I mean when I say “acknowledge your emotions”? Basically it means that you take a step back, look at them, & then do something with them. Something productive, if possible — some of those emotions might make us want to smash every dish in the house, but that’s probably not going to help much! My favourite way to deal with a strong negative feeling is to use EFT on it. I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again: it has changed my life. You can read about it here.
But the more you can do the better. Try running, yoga or acrobatics classes (exercise is a great way to blow off steam), singing really loudly, dancing really badly, seeing a counsellor (you can probably get a referral from your school if they don’t have one on site), talking to your friends & family about how you feel, writing it all down, crying until you pass out, making a mess with canvas & paint, baking a huge batch of cupcakes & beating the butter furiously, building a treehouse, making prank phonecalls (hey, sometimes it just helps), painting your face like a warrior & sauntering along the high street like you own it… Anything you want. It’s all good. Just stay away from things which harm you or other people.
Be there for your mother
It sounds like your mother has raised you alone — major kudos, & obviously she’s done an amazing job! — & that she is single. Of course, that’s cool, but it might mean she doesn’t have another adult with whom she is intimately involved to share the burden. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be faced with an illness & have children but no lover to hold your hand. Hopefully she has some good friends who can step in & look after her, but regardless, this might be the time to become her best friend.
This doesn’t mean you need to smother her. She is, after all, an extremely strong & independent woman. But it does mean that she’s going to need a bit of a boost from time to time, & if you can offer her that, you will both feel so much better for it. Accompany her to doctor’s appointments when you can, give her space to talk, spend time with her. You don’t need to rigorously schedule every moment you have alone — that would be exhausting & strange — but let her know that you are available, that you love her & support her, & that she can come to you whenever she likes.
If you’ve never been a big talker, now’s the time to push your old image of yourself aside & start gabbing! In order to keep your family together, you all need to know where you’re at. You might like to schedule regular meetings for you, your mother, your sister & brother, where you all sit down & talk — preferably with some good food & no distractions like music or television. Ask everyone how they’re doing. See if there are any gaps anywhere. For example, your brother might feel like he’s doing too much housework & doesn’t have time to go to karate lessons — if you know this, you can work around it, & you’ll all be happier.
Fear can sometimes push us into silence, but choking it down & not speaking up only makes things worse. If you absolutely cannot form the words, write a note.
Another thing you might like to do is tell your mother that you want to know what’s happening at all times. Tell her that you don’t want her to go through this alone, & that if you have all the information she does, then you can actually help. The scariest thing is being left in the dark, but if you feel like you have all the knowledge you need, you’ll feel much more secure & okay with what is going on. Some families leave their children out of important stuff like this, but I think, especially when it comes to such a big situation, it’s beneficial to treat your children like adults. That way, you can all grow together, you all know what’s going on & no one feels left out or confused or afraid.
Maintain your own life, too
That being said, there are going to be times when you just can’t take any more! You need to get out of your house, acknowledge your own emotions (see above), & do your own thing. You’re a teenager; trust me, your mother understands. Plus, everyone knows people are more pleasant when they have time to do what they want to do!
So don’t neglect your normal day to day life. You are still going to have homework, crushes, sartorial difficulties, hormones, ballet classes & all the usual insanity to deal with it. Go to the movies, go shopping, sleep at your friend’s house, get a boyfriend, wear black lipstick (okay, maybe not that last one). Just live. Your home life will be a bit crazier than most people’s, but you know what? You’re strong & awesome, & you’ll get through it.
It’s true that this next phase of your life is going to be a big one — being a teenager is difficult, regardless of the circumstances! — but you are going to grow like mad, & in a few years, you will be incredulous at how well you did.
Try to understand how your family is feeling
Your mother is probably going through the emotional wringer right now. She might be feeling sad, angry, terrified, lonely, confused or just plain numb. Medical problems are so scary because it’s not something distant — it’s right there, with you all the time. Your body, revolting against you. It’s incomprehensible & upsetting.
When something like this happens, there’s really no telling how someone will react to it. Some people get depressed & never want to leave their bed. Some stay hopeful & do their best to get on with “normal” life. Another group grab life by the gonads & decide that things are going to change, starting now! However, most people’s reactions are not quite so cut & dry. There will be good days & there will be bad ones. You cannot control your mother’s feelings or reactions to what is happening to her, but you can do your very best to be compassionate, loving & accepting.
It’s very possible that as you all go through this journey, everyone in the family will start to become a lot more human. You might see things you don’t like. You may realise that your mother is much more flawed than you used to think she was. You might recoil from your brother’s selfishness & feel confused by your sister’s nonchalant attitude. This is all part of growing & learning — you see new things, some of them unpleasant. Do your best to accept what you face with love & grace. If in doubt, channel Mother Theresa — then go somewhere secret & scream. Or go running until the sweat streams down your face. You’ll feel better.
Don’t treat your mother like a victim
A lot of people act as if anyone with an illness needs to be handled with kid gloves. They tread around softly & are infuriatingly agreeable & they smile all the time & la la la, daisies! If my body was going nuts & I felt sick & unwell, all the super-sweet faux nonsense would drive me CRAZY! I would jump up on my bed & pull off my clothes & do the haka, & then there’d really be trouble! I’d run downstairs & beat pots & pans with a huge spoon, cover the living room in ice-cream & fill my handbag with tomato sauce. I mean, honestly!
Anyone living with any kind of sickness (& you know what? That’s most people!) is still them! Your mother is still your mother, your sister is still your sister, & the grumpy guy at the convenience store is still just a grumpy old man. Their essence hasn’t changed. They might be a bit crankier, sleepier or sadder than usual, but you don’t have to pretend you’re someone else just to relate to them. A bit of normality is a good thing.
Take things one step at a time
Sometimes it’s impossible to see how things might look a week, a month or a year down the track, so just focus on what you can do today to make life easier.
Just breathe. Learn how to meditate. (If you’re too busy, learn how to do a walking meditation!) Soak up the sun. Appreciate life for what it is: it’s a beautiful thing. Confusing? Sure! Crazy? Yes! But beautiful all the same.
Again, I am so sorry that this is happening to you. You’re not alone: there are lots of people you can talk to about this, myself & the other nonpareils included.
Life is a funny thing. This is going to be a hard time for you, but it is also an amazing opportunity for you to grow, change & transform into a fabulously capable, compassionate & cool woman. I commend you for your courage & I have all my fingers & toes crossed that things turn out well for you, your mother, your brother & sister.
Extra For Experts:
When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide For Teens — click all the links down the side & have a read. The first page has some common emotions you might be feeling. If you use EFT to tap them out, you will feel much better.
A friend is doing chemo. What should I say? From Cary Tennis’ ‘Since You Asked’.
Kris Carr mania! Get on it! A Women On Writing interview (“People say they don’t know what to say. Well, it’s just common sense. Imagine walking in a cancer patient’s shoes and perhaps it will set you on course. I like it when folks listen and provide space and a safe container for me to share if I want to. What a lovely and compassionate gift. Just be present.”); tell your mother to join the My Crazy Sexy Life forum, buy Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips (her book) & watch Crazy Sexy Cancer, the movie about her journey.
EFT for cancer is quite interesting, too!