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Science Writing Prize 2018 – When your parent is diagnosed with cancer


Hannah Brewer, a PhD student in the Division of Genetics and Epidemiology and runner-up in the Science Writing Prize 2018, shares the story of her mother's cancer diagnosis.

Posted on 06 September, 2018 by Hannah Brewer

Hannah Brewer with mom and stepdad

Image: Hannah with her parents. Credit: Hannah Brewer

Today I am in, what I described to my friend as, a quietly sad mood.

At the end of an evening in January, I received a video call from my mom. This is unusual because she would normally only voice call me during the week, rather than video. I thought nothing of it and figured she had something to show me.

She used a video call because what she had to say was about to change everything.

Her shoulder had been hurting for the past week or so, and she’d had it examined. The X-ray showed a mottled area on the bone. This could either be an infection… or cancer.


They scheduled an appointment with an oncologist the following day.

I had a panic attack and went for a long walk into the chilly, yet fresh south London air.

The next day: video call. It’s cancer.


My mom.

Cancer in my mom.

The floor fell out from beneath me.

I flew home two days later.

What followed was a series of events that took me on what has been, and continues to be, the most emotional ride of my life – my mom’s diagnosis and treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer containing the power to break bones.

Hannah with her mother

Image: Walking with mom at home in West Virginia. Credit: Hannah Brewer

What happens when your parent gets diagnosed with cancer:

1. Your worst nightmare has come true. Say hello to numbness.

No more waking up from that terrible dream to a sigh of relief. The shock of this moment is unlike anything I have ever felt. The panic in my heart overtook anything else I could begin to want to feel.

There was a numbing stillness to the world around me. One minute I cried, the next I couldn’t cry at all. The thought and fear of what might come next consumed everything else.

2. You are reminded you cannot control everything… except how you respond.

No matter what you do for a living, you probably solve some sort of problem. Artists provide mediums through which people can relate and connect, through music, painting, poetry and so on. Scientists solve problems using their own kinds of art involving critical thinking. Educators shape future leaders’ minds.

My point is this: most problems can be solved. You can make just about any situation better, somehow. Cancer. You cannot physically grasp the cancer in your parent’s body.

It exists only to destruct, until a doctor can make informed decisions on how to lessen its effect. The time it takes to diagnose and decide on a treatment plan can feel like infinity.

In the meantime, you learn how to be there for your parent, what they need, how they need it, when they need it. You can only try to make them feel more comfortable, loved, and most definitely not alone.

You must also pay attention to your own needs. Make yourself comfortable because your heart is breaking slowly over the pain in the body of the person who unconditionally loves you. Your heart needs comfort.

3. You realise your parent is not as invincible as you thought.

If your parent is like my mom, they can do anything. ANYTHING. Open ketchup packets, make you feel better after a bad day, take a medical team to Haiti, be incredibly resilient.

Your parent is getting older, though. The number one risk factor for most cancers is AGE. You think you’re getting older, your parent is getting even older… and more susceptible to bad changes in DNA, something they cannot control.

This is when you see them differently. You begin to realise that time is precious, and maybe you’ve taken advantage of the precious healthy time. You realise your parent is, in fact, only human.

4. You realise your parent is the strongest person you know.

But as treatments begin – surgeries, blood draws, bone marrow biopsies, shots, endless scans, pills, unfortunate side-effects – you realise your parent is the strongest person you know.

They are taking a physical, emotional, life-or-death situation and... pushing forward. Fighting. Your parent is an actual warrior, fighting every single day, pushing to regain normalcy. You’ll see them as a new kind of warrior – one with superhuman strength. It’s inspiring.

5. You will want to know as much as you can… to an extent.

You’ll begin to want to understand EVERYTHING about the diagnosis and prognosis. You’ll venture into the mysterious Google search page 2 – scavenging for anything to convince you your parent will be okay, okay very soon, and okay for a very long time.

Until you circle around the same information in different words. Until you realise you cannot think about it constantly. You must also fight. You begin to pursue a new normal.

6. You begin to realise everything is now different. You will not be the same. Life will not return to the way it was before.

You must find new joy, a new normal. A new normal that now includes watching your parent fight, new joy that includes days worth celebrating and days worth trying to minimise. Life now includes joys in simply learning your parent is having a good day… that they have more energy.

New joy that finds quietly sad days a little normal because you’re dealing with watching the person who loves you most go through the fight of their life, and no one fights alone. You’re there with your parent, fighting. Their reality is your reality, and you will be there with them, just as they have always been there with you.

As a cancer epidemiologist who focuses on cancer risk at the population level, this experience of cancer on the personal level brings new meaning, new reality to the risk values in the results of my own work.

Everyone’s journey is different, but this cancer diagnosis in my mom has changed everything. It forced me to accept a new reality and to find new joy. I am growing into it every day, even on the quietly sad days.

Hannah Brewer is a PhD student in the Division of Genetics and Epidemiology


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