A cancer cell is like a cockroach. It can survive anywhere; you’re always shocked where it turns up, and after you bring in the exterminator, you hold your breath, in constant fear that it will come back.
For years, we’ve listened to the medical community preach about the willful masterminds that are cancer cells. They elude poisonous drugs; they adapt to treacherous conditions quickly, and they multiply faster than you can say, “chemotherapy”.
In my opinion, the true shrewdness of the cancer cell is manifested not by the havoc it wrecks on a patient’s body but in its vengeful reach beyond the patient – to me. When my mom battled pancreatic cancer for 10 months, I didn’t have cancer, but cancer had me.
And for this very reason, I want to share the five most important things to do the day your parent (or any loved one for that matter) is diagnosed with cancer. I don’t claim to be a cancer expert, but I do claim to have experienced the secondary effects of it.
So, without further adieu, here are the top five things to do the day your parent is diagnosed with cancer:
1. Call a best friend (or five). Maybe it’s a college roommate. A childhood buddy. A summer camp bff. But regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a private person when it comes to personal matters, I urge you to contact a friend for support. There’s something very powerful – almost as powerful as cancer’s unilateral decision to present itself – about hearing a friend say, “I will drop everything and fly cross-country to see you right now. Just tell me – What can I do?”
2. Work your network. First, I’d like to thank business school for hammering home the importance of networking. This might seem like a crazy, over-achieving day one activity, and the truth is I do not insist upon it. I would, however, strongly recommend you work your network within the first week of diagnosis – especially for those cancers that are rare or difficult to treat. After the initial shock and panic of hearing my mom’s diagnosis, the most terrifying thing was figuring out what to do about it.
The doctor who originally diagnoses cancer is rarely an oncologist, and while he or she likely has recommendations, it’s up to you to find an oncologist, a first-rate chemotherapy or radiation treatment center and, believe it or not, the right mix of chemotherapy drugs. Can we say, OVERWHELMING?
Yes, yes we can. Because that’s exactly what it is.
The secret power of your network is that you never know who you know who knows the sister, brother, cousin, housekeeper (you get the idea) of a top-notch, cutting edge oncologist who can get you an appointment with one quick phone call favor. I know that was wordy and long-winded, but it was also completely necessary. I can’t emphasize the value of networking enough. It’s that important. That’s how I found Dr. Daniel Laheru at Johns Hopkins, and I don’t know what I would have done without him.
3. Set a schedule for day two. You know the feeling when you wake up the morning after an enormously regretful hook-up? Or after total-ing your car? Or failing an important exam? Well, multiply that by 100, and that’s the dreadful feeling of waking up the morning after your mother has been diagnosed with cancer. How do you cope with the morning after? Establish a schedule. Wake up, breathe, play Words With Friends, eat a bagel, go for a run, take your mom to her favorite restaurant. It doesn’t matter what the schedule is; it simply matters that you have one. Something that’s reliable and keeps you grounded when you feel like screaming, “what the *&%$*@ am I supposed to do now?”
4. Pour yourself a drink. After the harsh reality of the day, sometimes all you need is a little cloudiness. Plus, who doesn’t love a stiff drink after a tough day? And let’s be honest, you’ve had a pretty tough day.
5. Bonus. Number 5 is a wild card. It’s the freestyle do-whatever-you-feel-like-doing step. Sing your heart out to Coldplay in the car; watch a rerun of your favorite Parks & Recreation episode; eat an obscenely large bag of sour patch kids. Hug your mom. Cry. Whatever you think will feel good (even it just brings temporary pleasure), go with it.
While I can’t protect you from bearing the ultimate brunt of the disease, I hope that the above enumerated list will help you dodge the sting of the shrapnel that comes on diagnosis day.
P.S. For the record, the above list is also applicable to regretful hook-ups, total-ing cars and failing important exams.