Supporting a Parent’s Cancer Fight From a Distance

Mom got diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in August 2020. How could I support her during a pandemic and from 100 miles away?

Mom’s journey started with a misdiagnosis by her hometown hospital. An abnormal mammogram turned into a biopsy, and shortly after, a phone call that she was “in the clear.”

But a month later they called to say that her sample was actually inconclusive, and likely cancerous.

Her doctor offered to see her again, or gave her the option to wait another six months for another mammogram. As a retired nurse, she didn’t waste time and scheduled a second opinion with a larger health system 50 miles outside of town.

She was quickly put through imaging and biopsy again, and the result came back: Positive for breast cancer.

She had braced us all for the possibility. As a nurse, she saw her breast tissue on the screen, and knew that spikey-edged white spot was likely not a good sign. But all the preparation in the world didn’t answer what was to come.

Especially in the middle of pandemic, when neither my brother or I can be there to help her or my dad. Or provide support. Or do anything that proximity would benefit.

Her new (and incredible) team of doctors think they caught it early, now officially staged as stage IIA. Thankfully, her lump- and lymphectomy revealed no outside spread. Genetic tests came back with good news, too: No hidden genes lurking in our shared blood. Her doctors are confident they can kick the big C to the curb. As I type this, she’s done with her four rounds of chemo and is about to enter four weeks of radiation.

But in these last several months — even during a pandemic — I’ve learned how I can help her and my dad from 100 miles away. Full disclosure: It’s not easy. But here are some tips if you find yourself in similar shoes.

  • Identify your limitations
  • Prioritize what you’re capable of doing from wherever you are
  • Use technology to help bridge the gaps
  • Offer to raise money (if you’re comfortable doing so)
  • Be the family spokesperson and help keep people informed
  • Let them vent — the good and the bad

Identify your limitations

You’ll want to drop everything, rush home, and help. If you have the means to do that — and it’s not a pandemic — go for it. They’ll need all the support they can get right now. But if you can’t do it, like I couldn’t, acknowledge that to yourself.

Be vocal about your limitations, even if your parent(s) insist that you not fuss over them. Apologize, and if you offer to check-in by phone, video call, or email every day, every other day, etc. then stick to it. This is not the time to let your parents down.

If your physical distance limits you, find ways to close the gap. Communicate with other family members nearby, or find a way to use technology, like Zoom or Facebook, to video call and stay in touch. But remember: Not everyone loves technology. In fact, my mother loathes computers and webcams. In those cases, good ol’ snail mail and telephone calls do the trick.

Prioritize what you can do

Whether you live across the country or you simply don’t have the flexibility from work to be present as often as you’d like, prioritize what you know you can do.

If you know you can provide support by way of takeout or delivery meals, or financial help, mentally arrange how you might make those happen. If that’s not possible, acknowledge that, too.

HyVee’s Mealtime to Go has been really helpful to have available to them when they don’t want to go to the store, or don’t have the energy to cook. And I can order for them!

For me — in a pandemic — I’m prioritizing quarantining so I can go home and visit without putting them at risk. When I go back, I’ll plan a few large meals I can whip together for them while I’m there, and tasks around the house I can get done for them.

But aside from my visits, I’ve also helped my parents set up a meal calendar so they can plan for food to be in the fridge, especially on the days where mom’s likely to feel her worst after chemotherapy.

Use technology to bridge the gap (even Amazon)

When my mom needed something — moisturizer for her peeling, itchy skin, or caps and scarves to keep her head warm as winter set in — Amazon was there to deliver in just a couple of days.

To be clear, I love shopping local when I can. But my parents live in a tiny town with very few local commerce options, and even fewer options for someone going through chemotherapy. I don’t have the time to hunt for what she needs with independent Etsy sellers, and things that will take a week or more to get to her. Nope, two-day Prime shipping to the rescue.

I got her at least two sets of head wraps when the temperatures plummeted in Iowa. Shipped and arrived in two days. I also sent her some of my own crocheted hats for her, but the wraps are more feminine and delicate, and she can match them better to her outfits.

The other pro of technology today is connecting my mom — third party — to friends who’ve gone down this road themselves. One friend who’s in remission from breast cancer herself had many words of wisdom to share, and even sent her a care package of helpful resources, mints, and other goodies to help her get through chemotherapy. While another friend who’s going through chemotherapy shared his own side effects and experiences, which helped her feel less alone.

Mom’s wraps from Amazon were cozy and stylish. She’s wearing them as she waits for her hair to grow back.

Mom isn’t on Facebook — she loathes social media, and all computers really. But through these messages, I was able to share with her stories and experiences of other people. It made her feel like she had her own little support group, even if they couldn’t be in a room together. And during a pandemic — when support groups are nonexistent — that is essential.

If you’re comfortable, raise money

I only suggest this if you’re comfortable. My parents (now in their 70s) would never, ever think to ask for money.

But I had so many friends reaching out to me by social media and phone, asking how they could help my parents from wherever they are. My solution? A donation fund.

While Mom’s cancer will largely be covered by Medicare, there are plenty of tiny, easy-to-forget expenses in the middle that are coming from their pockets: Gas to fill the car for appointments out of town, food when they’re too tired to cook or don’t want to leave the house in a pandemic, and accessories to help Mom feel like herself.

I chose to use GoFundMe because it was the one I was most familiar with. Folks who didn’t prefer to use GFM used Venmo instead. Together we raised $850, which I gave to my parents and who are using it for gas and trips out of town for cancer care. It touched their hearts and reminded her she’s not alone, even if she can’t leave the house.

Offer to be the “family spokesperson”

One thing Mom absolutely didn’t have the energy to do was call and write people about her condition and updates about her treatment. She just didn’t have it in her, and neither did Dad.

So I picked up the “family spokesperson” role, setting up a Caring Bridge journal to track her treatments, side effects, and goings-on in their lives. I also used Facebook — where most of our family and family-friends are located — to share updates. I tagged my Dad, who has most of their closest friends on his list. Even though he doesn’t use the platform much, the updates would appear on his page, so his friends could read them, too.

I set up a Caring Bridge that allowed me to easily share updates about mom’s condition and care, and share them on social media. It also allows non-social media folks to follow her journey.

We have a few family members who aren’t on social media or the computer, and for those I offered to call and write on Mom’s behalf. It was such a relief for her to know that people were kept updated about her condition and care, without the stress of having to do it herself.

Let them vent — anytime, and as much as needed

The best support I’ve found for my Mom? Is just letting her call me to cry, vent, be angry. Sometimes she calls to complain that food doesn’t taste the same, and she doesn’t have an appetite. Sometimes she calls to cry in frustration. Morning or night, middle of the day — it doesn’t matter. I answer the phone and listen, sympathize, and help her move on.

There’s a believe with cancer that “What are we going to talk about besides cancer?” when you call or reach out to someone who’s going through it. The truth? You don’t have to only talk about cancer.

What did you talk about before? Mom loves to watch the designer handbag specials on QVC and describe to me what she’s seeing. Often I’ll hop online to find it on the QVC website so we can ooh and aah over it together. It’s silly, we laugh, but most importantly, it’s the same stuff we’d do if she didn’t have cancer.

With my Dad, we just chit-chat. Dad isn‘t a big conversationalist. He loves to ask questions, dig into what’s going on in your life. I oblige. But I also make sure to ask him how he’s doing, what he’s feeling. He needs to vent, too. Being a caregiver is tough work. Last week I knew he was feeling really isolated with everything, so I bought him a fantastic World War II book and had it sent to his house as a surprise. Mom said he’s been flipping through it ever since, so it’s a nice distraction for him right now.

This is a tip sheet, not a guide

I know my parents won’t be here forever. I’m fortunate to have an incredibly strong relationship with the people who gave me life. I know not everyone has the same experience.

This post is a tip sheet, not a guide. It’s not required reading. But going through this has opened my eyes to what I can control, and what I can do, even 100 miles away in a pandemic.

I hope no one goes through this. Cancer needs to be wiped out. Bu if you encounter it and you’re far away from that person you love, I hope these tips help you.

If you have other tips for ways I could help my parents, leave a comment below. I’m always looking for more ways to support them right now.

Content strategist & writer @Lullabot. I love great UX and content, from books to blogs. Also: Bookworm, kayaker, crocheter, cat-mom. https://bit.ly/3gyyusv

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