My Interrupted Youth: Dealing with My Mother’s Cancer as a College Student

I think people usually imagine their twenties as carefree. I always did. I thought I would be deciding on a career and dating around and having fun with my friends—figuring out who I am, basically. I am still doing all of those things, but they aren’t my priority anymore.

My mom is really sick. She got diagnosed with a very aggressive form of lung cancer in 2014, and I have been scared out of my mind for about two years because of it. I have no idea what is going to happen to her, which is probably the worst part—not knowing. To top it all off, I still have to go to school and be a normal human being despite all of this added anxiety because my mom wants a typical life for me. Immediately after she got diagnosed, my mom told me, “I don’t want to take away your joy” (one of the millions of reasons I love her more than anyone else on the planet). It would be worse for her if I let her illness control my life in addition to hers, so per her request, I have been trying to live my normal life. It has been so hard to try to be two people: the frightened daughter and the normal young adult. I’m definitely not an expert at coping with cancer, but I have been dealing with this for about two years now and have discovered some things that help. I’m sure I’m not the only person struggling with a personal issue, so I made a list of the best ways I’ve found to cope with hardship in your everyday life.


1. Stay Busy
I can’t stress this enough. If I have too much time on my hands, all I do is think about my mom. I obsess over every breath she takes and worry about what could happen in the coming months. Obviously some of this worrying is natural, but I can’t change anything by having an anxiety attack in the shower at 1:00 a.m. By getting involved in my daily activities and never sitting on too much spare time, I worry less. It’s what my mom wants. So get out there and keep yourself busy: join a book club, take on extra assignments, go to movie nights with your friends, and keep living your life.

2. Find People Who See You
Getting through the day can be exhausting for me when I’m worrying about what is going on at home, but talking about my mom from morning until night is just as tiring. I don’t like when people who are close to me pretend nothing is wrong, but I’m also bothered by the people who pester me constantly with questions I don’t have the energy to answer. I’ve found that I want to have people in my life who empathize with my struggle but don’t make me talk about it all the time. Try to surround yourself with people who really see you and understand that you’re doing your best to make it from one day to the next. The best support system I have is friends who will give me an extra hug at the end of the day when I look like I’m about to crack, or bring me chocolate just because they were thinking of me.

3. Don’t Judge Your Feelings
Because dealing with cancer is such a singular experience, I often find myself worrying if what I’m feeling about it is “okay.” I ask myself if I should be this anxious when I’m a nervous wreck about the future, and if I have a day during which I forget about my mom for a couple of hours because I’m busy or having fun, I worry that I’m being a bad daughter. The pressure I was putting on myself to feel how I think someone whose mom has cancer is supposed to feel wasn’t doing anyone any good, especially me. In reality, a feeling is just a feeling; it isn’t good or bad, and it doesn’t make it go away if I try to assign a label to it. If I’m sad, that’s okay. If I’m happy, that’s great too. Change is hard and uncontrollable, so your emotions are bound to be during a difficult time too.

4. Find an Outlet
As they say in The Fault in Our Stars, “pain demands to be felt,” and I have found that to be very true when it comes to coping with my mom’s illness. I clearly have a lot of feelings about cancer, and those feelings have to be processed in some way. It helps me to have strategies for dealing with my emotions, and different strategies work for different people. It usually helps when I talk to someone about my feelings because I’m a very communicative person (therapy is a gift from the gods). I’ve also found journaling to be really helpful because I can address all of my feelings, and I don’t have to carry them around with me in the same way I did before writing them down. Other people like creative writing, painting, or even exercising. Regardless of how you process, make sure you are dealing with your feelings during a hard time. If you don’t right now, you will just have to later.

5. Don’t Hide
Although it was difficult to slip back into normal life after my mom got diagnosed, it got easier after a while…almost too easy. As I got busy at school with homework and my social life, I could forget that I had this huge shadow waiting for me at home pretty quickly. Some days I would talk to my mom for a shorter amount of time on the phone because I wanted to get back to a book I was reading, or I would be upset that I was going home on the weekend to see her when I could have been doing something fun at school. But I was always happy to be home once I got there and sobbed when I had to leave, so I clearly didn’t actually care that much about the party I missed. If I didn’t see my mom, I could forget how sick she was. But she is sick, and I can’t avoid it. Hiding from my fear only kept the emotions at bay; they were still there. If you’re dealing with something difficult, don’t hide from your feelings about it. Be honest with yourself and the people in your life because you don’t want to wake up one day and wish you had done something differently.

This list isn’t perfect or an all-inclusive coping mechanism, but I hope it helps someone who is going through a rough time like me. I’m so sorry if this is happening to you. I hope you’re able to deal with your feelings, and I hope you have friends to help you out. If not, I’m around.

Feature illustration by Kirsten Samanich, @kir_andloathinginlasvegas.