Top 5 Things NOT to Do the Day Your Parent is Diagnosed with Cancer

Number one is so important that I’m just going to dive right in.

1.  Do not Google your parent’s disease. Step away from that search engine; don’t even think about typing the letters W-e-b-M-D, and by all means, resist the urge to browse cancer-related forums or group chats. You really don’t know how hazardous this can be until you do it, but I promise you this: You won’t find any comfort in what you’ll encounter.

My father was a psychiatrist who spent a large part of his early career devoted to research. Here is what he used to say about statistics: “It doesn’t matter what the statistic is; all that matters is the side of the statistic you’re on.”  In other words, survival rates, percentages and other statistical data only go so far. Your parent is not a collection of patients. Your parent is one person. Focus on your sample size of one.

2.  Do not forget to wash your hands. That’s right. Wash ‘em. Lack of sleep isn’t the only thing that compromises the immune system. Stress, especially in large quantities, can weaken it. You’re going to be forced to deal with a lot of stress during the first week of diagnosis, and coming down with a cold or sinus infection will make things worse.

Because of the circumstances, you may find yourself in the hospital or doctor’s office with your parent more than usual, and these are the best places to pick up unwanted bugs. So, wash your hands and keep yourself healthy. Purell it up.

3.  Do not think about work. If you try to take on everything that you usually take on during a typical day as Lawyer, Student, Name Your Occupation, you will either go crazy or break down into a blubbering mess of tears before the day is over. If you can, give your mind and emotions the day to adjust to your new reality. This new reality will be a focal point for a while, and your brain needs to walk around it, sniff it, touch it and get used to it before figuring out where to place it in the jigsaw puzzle that is your frontal lobe.

4.  Do not be late paying your bills. In other words, don’t forget the small (but important) stuff. Some of these to-dos may happen to fall on diagnosis day, however, you will more likely face upcoming due dates throughout the following weeks. If your internal alarm clock goes off instinctually on every first of the month to pay bills, rent, etc., don’t be surprised if the alarm isn’t quite as reliable after your parent’s diagnosis. You may need to use a couple extra post-it notes or put a few more reminder alerts in your Outlook calendar. And if you accidentally miss a PG&E payment, try not to beat yourself up. You’re fragile right now, so go easy on yourself.

5.  Do not stay up all night. I’ll tell you what’s worse than your parent’s diagnosis: Your parent’s diagnosis when you’re sleep-deprived. Get some sleep. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, take Melatonin or read the most boring book you can get your hands on. I tried a Financial Accounting textbook once, and I was asleep before I finished the chapter’s executive summary.

One last thing: While it did not make the top five list above, please do not think you’re alone. Several people in your extended network have been faced with similar hardships. (Your network includes me whether or not we’ve met because you’re reading this blog and are therefore connected to me.)

Ok, I lied. One more final thing: Do not be a stranger. If your parent (or loved one) is diagnosed with cancer, and you feel an urge to talk to someone who has been in a similar spot, please call me. If you want more suggestions, some support, words of comfort, or simply the name of that Financial Accounting textbook, email me to set up a time to talk. I’m serious. – That’s me.

PS. A big thank you goes out to a friend who inspired this post — Because sometimes it’s just as important not to do something as it is to do something. She is currently dealing with a parent’s fight against cancer, and she emphasizes the importance of #1, do not Google your parent’s disease. So if my warning doesn’t dissuade you enough, take it from the both of us!


2 responses to “Top 5 Things NOT to Do the Day Your Parent is Diagnosed with Cancer

  1. Fantastic list. The internet wasn’t available when either of my parents were diagnosed – thank gawd!!! I know what happens when I google my own ailments and can’t imagine how quickly I would have jumped to the worst case scenario if I could have researched cancer.

    May I add one general category of don’ts? I would say don’t attempt to predict the future. My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was 15. I began planning how I would take care of my mom. I figured she could live with me at college and then for as long as she wanted. I had it all figured out. She died 7 years later and he lived for another 14 years after her. Life is just flat out crazy.

    • Hi Felicity Ann — I love the sixth item you added to the list. So true. And what a crazy twist regarding your parents. I completely agree — Life will surprise you, and no matter how prepared you are (or how much time you spend preparing), you never know what will happen. I think this is especially true with diseases like cancer. Thank you so much for sharing, and I hope to hear from you again!

      All my best,

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