March is colon cancer awareness month and also the month with International Women's day. In honor of that, I'm going to be writing about one of the strongest women I know, who just happens to have colon cancer, my mom. This is my story about the brutal truth of having a mother with cancer.
Two days before my seventeenth birthday my parents called me and my brothers into their room for a "family meeting". My mom had been having a lot of pain in her stomach and was currently getting tests done to find out what was going on. Knowing this and having my intuition screaming at me saying something was wrong, I still wasn't prepared for what they had to say. My mother has stage four colon cancer with nodules in her lungs and liver. I felt my world come crashing down, I always thought that was just an expression, but at that moment it was 100 percent true. My mom and I would fight all the time when I was in middle school, but throughout high school, we mended our relationship and my mom truly became my best friend.
After my parents broke the news everything change. The truth is, the scariest time of the whole cancer process was the unknown. Was it terminal? Could it be cured? What kind of treatment would she have to go through? Would I graduate high school without my mom? Everyone is scared, but it's important to keep a brave face on until you get some answers. I started my senior year of high school going into an empty room in the counselor's office because I would go to school crying every day. Being away from my mom was so painful that my parents allowed me to graduate early so I could be with my mom. It turned out that my mom's cancer isn't curable, but with chemotherapy, she should be able to live a long healthy life. It wasn't the best news, but it wasn't the worst either. Finally, with some answers, I could breathe a bit easier, but then came the adjusting to my new normal. Seeing my mom absolutely miserable on chemo and not able to do the things she used to was heartbreaking. Her whole life, my mom only wanted one thing, to be a mother. My mom was very hands-on at home and having to get used to eating frozen pizzas instead of my mom's delicious dinners and not being able to go out and shop with her whenever we wanted was incredibly difficult.
Then there was everyone else. When my mom was first diagnosed with cancer my family and I were bombarded with "I'm so sorry, if you need anything I'm here for you" from just about every person my mom knew. I can't blame them, my mom is an angel how could you not like her, but I didn't want to talk about it. Don't get me wrong I was grateful for the support, but it would've been nice to have a conversation with someone without them bringing up the fact my mom has cancer. We also had to start a dinner list where some of my mom's friends would offer to bring us dinner when my mom couldn't cook. This made me feel like a charity case. It made me feel like everyone looked at us like the poor, pathetic Van Milligen kids who couldn't take care of themselves because their mommy had cancer. The logical part of me knew that wasn't true, but I still hated it.
Even before my mom was diagnosed with cancer I had been struggling with my mental health, but my mom's diagnosed sent me into a tailspin. I became deeply depressed to the point where I gave up on how I looked. The only time I would make myself look decent was for work, but only because I didn't want to disappoint my mom by getting fired. I always started to self-harm because the pain would keep the tears from falling and I felt that this pain was what I deserved. My work situation was also bad with my boss acting inappropriately with me, but that's a story for another time. The point is, this one event sent me into the deep and I didn't know how to swim and I had no one to help me not drown. I never felt so alone in my life and I wanted to know what I did to deserve this. I wanted to know what my mother did to deserve this. I turned my back on the church and still haven't gone back to this day. I isolated myself from my friends. I had no purpose in this world and my life had no meaning. What was the point?
The point was, my mom needed me. Like I said my mom loves being a mom more than anything. If I were to give up, it would crush her and she needs to stay positive if she wants to remain healthy. There's plenty of research that shows that being healthy mentally can help your physical health. I had to try, if not for me then for my mom.
I decided to start therapy, which was one of the best decisions I made. For a long time, my mom was my only support system, but I couldn't exactly talk to her about how her cancer affects me. My therapist is someone who I can talk to about how my mom's diagnosis affects my life, without worrying about upsetting my mom. I've also learned how to cope with the fact that this life is my new normal.
However, if you want the honest truth here it is. Even after 3 years, there's still a lot of days the paranoia of losing my mom gets to me. There are still days I can't help, but be angry that this is happening to my beautiful, kind mother. There are still days where I get upset that life isn't like it used to be. Everything changed: vacations, school functions, home life, everything. There are still days where I even get mad at my mom, not because I'm actually mad at her, but because I'm frustrated that things can't be like they used to be. The brutal truth is that there isn't going to be any hallelujah moment where you get used to this life. You're not going to wake up one day and be okay with how life turned out. You're going to cry, you're going to be angry, and it's going to hurt like hell. However, there will come a day where don't get mad and you don't cry as much as you used. Over time, if you get the help you need, you will learn how to cope with the pain so it hurts less.
My advice for anyone struggling with having a parent with cancer is to appreciate the little moments and to not be afraid to get the help you need.
You have two choices: you could spend all day dwelling on the fact that life isn't like it used to be or how much it sucks seeing my mom feeling so bad during chemo weeks. You could scream and cry to whatever Gods may be out there about how unfair it all is. Or you can treasure the little moments that aren't good but aren't all that bad and love the moments that are good. Maybe the good moments aren't as good as they used to be, but honestly, that's what makes them all the more special. We may not be able to go shopping as much as we used to, but that just makes the rare moment we do get to run up to Target and spend more money than we should, extra special. My mom might have to lay in bed all day some days, but that what makes watching "Say Yes to the Dress" marathons and eating ice cream in be with her some of my favorite moments of my day.
Also, NEVER be afraid to get the help you need. Whether it's therapy, exercise, self-care activities, or just venting to anyone you can, it's important to remember to take care of yourself. As cliche as it may sound, it's true that if you can't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your parent. They need you to be as okay as you can be. That doesn't mean being perfect, happy, and shoving your true feelings to the deepest corner of your mind. Being ok means taking care of yourself and taking things day by day. Being ok is realizing that sometimes all you can do is just survive today and tomorrow and the day after that If your parent sees you are fighting, they will have the strength to fight. Break down and cry if you need to, scream if you need to, crying in front of your parent is always better than plastering on a fake smile. You may not have cancer, but your health, mental and physical, is still important. At the end of the day, you still need to live your life and you can't truly live if you don't try to take care of yourself.
If you've found yourself in the same situation that I have, or one day in the future you find yourself in this situation, know that you aren't alone. The brutal truth that no one tells you is that the pain and the fear will never go away. However, there are ways to ease the fear and pain. It's not about getting rid of the pain, it's about learning to cope with the pain. Sometimes all you can do is just get out of bed and face the day, and I know how hard that can be sometimes. It's ok if all you do is make it through the day, in fact, you're a complete badass for getting up and surviving each day. The goal isn't to have it all figure out and not feel any pain, the goal is to be able to say "this sucks ass, but this won't break me, I will get up every time this knocks me down". The truth is: you are strong, your parent is strong and you can do this.