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When a parent has cancer

Netflix has been showing “Stepmom,” an “old” film produced in 1998 starring Susan Sarandon, playing the ex-wife, and Julia Roberts, the new wife-to-be, as two women initially competing for the loyalty of the ex-wife’s two children, but the story takes a different twist as the ex-wife fights cancer.

There’s a lot of melodrama here, but a real-world issue that is well highlighted in the film is that of helping children with the prospects of losing a parent to cancer. It was a film I could relate to, and I thought of sharing my story as the son of a cancer survivor.

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Back in 1965 — I was 13 then — my mother came home from the United States where she had surgery. She was very pale and weak, but no one talked about why she had the surgery.

She had changed, from warm and affectionate to distant. Every few days, my sister, 10 years old at that time, and I would hear her crying out in pain. It was more difficult if the pain attacks came at night, and we would hear her and my father preparing to leave for the hospital, fortunately a few minutes away by car.

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It was only after two or three months that one of the priests in my school called me to his office one day and told me my mother had cancer and was probably going to die. The doctors said six months. He assured me everyone was preparing for that time when she would leave us, and that I should be strong for my sister and myself.

My parents continued with their silence about the cancer, and so, too, the many relatives and friends who would drop by, to see her, and to check how we were.

The six months passed, then a year, with continuing visits to the hospital, but it seemed she was actually getting better. My paternal grandmother would visit from Davao and told me she had prayed very hard and maybe my mother was getting well.

Indeed, she was and, soon, we would hear the word “miracle” more often, including from my own mother. She opened up about her cancer and several years later, when I was in college, she showed me her medical records. She had a form of stomach cancer called linitis plastica, uncommon and deadly. The doctors in the US took out practically her entire stomach, which meant she could eat only small amounts of food, and sometimes, she’d have painful “dumping,” the food moving too fast into her intestines.

Through the years, other little stories emerged, including a cousin telling me only a few years ago that my mother’s clan had decided my sister and I were to go to this cousin’s family if my mother died.

My mother often apologized for having been, she felt, unable to care for me during turbulent adolescence. I would assure her coming-of-age and its many tensions were inevitable, and she had done better than many other parents in helping me through, despite her own health problems.

After watching “Stepmom,” I did look up the latest advice about talking with children about cancer. The American Cancer Society (and, I hope soon, the Philippine Cancer Society) advice was simple and straightforward:

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Counseling has to be age-appropriate. Very young children will not need to be given too many details about the cancer, just knowledge that a loved one is very ill, and needs support and that they, the children, will have support, too.

Young children also have “magical thinking,” possibly blaming themselves for a parent’s illness (did I do something wrong to make her sick?). They need to be assured that cancer is not some kind of punishment.

Adolescents will find it tougher sailing, saddled with other coming-of-age issues, but they are also in a better position to understand cancer and what’s entailed. Many feel lost and abandoned, so adults need to exert extra effort to assure them of connectivity, being on call.

Living with a mother battling cancer did make us more patient and more caring, something that happened, too, with my children who were around helping my mother, their Lola, with another crisis later: an eight-year struggle with dementia.

My mother passed away on June 10, 2018, her many extended years, to use a popular Filipino term, a “bonus na bonus.”

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TAGS: Michael L. Tan, parent with cancer, Pinoy Kasi
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