How to talk about my mom’s cancer at college

I want comfort, not a solution

Words on the phone kept coming, I fought to keep my voice steady, hunched over myself, quiet tears fell. The cancer had spread.

I got off the phone with my mom, sunk back into the pillows and tears came in earnest. I swallowed my rising nausea, shook, and cursed. I was alone in my tiny freshmen dorm, and no one could comfort me.

Pulling myself together, I sent a text to my closest friend on campus asking her to come to my room. I told her my mom would have to go back to chemo and started crying again. She didn’t say anything, she didn’t try to tell me that it would be fine, she just hugged me.

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I left my room shortly after, had a dinner date with friends, none of whom even knew my mom was sick. I stuffed my fear, pain, and anger deep down inside me, put on mascara and a smile, and walked out the door. I smiled, laughed, and didn’t think about cancer at all during dinner.

Over the course of the next few days I told several other people. “My mom has cancer”, their eyes would widen, shift, and drop “and I just found out that it’s metastasized.”

They stammer, “oh my gosh…I’m so sorry…I’m sure she’s gonna be just fine…” then their words trail off and their eyes fill with pity and silent questions: “it is going to be fine, right? You are going to be ok, right?” and then, inevitably, I would comfort them.

“Yes, I’m ok, I’m fine, she’s strong.” Their eyes clear, they smile, and tell me they’re always here to talk, and change the conversation.

My mom loves to take my siblings and I on adventures

They tell me “I’m fine,” “it’s fine,” “you’re fine,” “your mom is going to be fine.” The word fine comes up a lot, because it’s not fine. Someone saying that it’s going to be fine doesn’t make the situation fine. The situation is not fine in any way shape or form.

There is this idea that you have to have an answer, but me telling you isn’t me asking you to make it right. People feel the need to become a preacher or a therapist. They try and give me an answer when I don’t need or want an answer. They try to make me happy when I just want to be sad.

Honestly, I’m not fine. I’m terrified. My mom is the person I love most in the world, and the knowledge that she has stage four breast cancer hurts my heart so much so that I have a deep physical ache when I think about it. Nothing is fine.

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I hate telling people that my mom is sick. My mind gets tense and my stomach tightens. They look at me with pity and concern, like I’m broken because cancer plays a large role in my life.

People want to get out of this uncharted territory, because it’s hard, because telling me that everything will be fine is easier than sitting and being sad with me.

What I need more than anything is for people to be sad with me.

My best friend in Williamsburg, the first one I told, understood that. She didn’t try to make the situation right or offer some sort of explanation for my suffering, she just let me cry. She doesn’t look at me any differently. She doesn’t treat me with kid gloves or look at me like I’m broken or damaged or like I might have an emotional breakdown at any given moment.

She treats me like the friend she got to know and love before she knew about my mom, and that’s more comforting  than anything she could have said.

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William & Mary: College of William and Mary