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When You're the One Who Has to Tell Family Members a Loved One Has Cancer

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In April 2017 when I was 17 years old, I had just received the news about my own health care I had anxiously waited over eight months for. My life-saving heart surgeries were approved under out-of-country funding through Canada’s health care system. As a result, I would be able to travel to the United States to receive my surgeries as soon as they could be booked. My mom and I called the clinic and waited for a call back. While she rested, I worked on my schoolwork in another part of the house and took her phone with me to answer when the clinic called us back to book the appointment. I was absolutely overjoyed about this.

Sure enough, the phone rang not long after. I answered with an excited “hello,” expecting the voice on the other end of the line to be that of the assistant of the clinic in the United States that would perform my heart surgeries. However, the voice that responded belonged to the family doctor of both my mom and my grandma. I asked if she wanted me to get my mom and she told me no, that due to my mom’s brain injury that impacts her memory from her sudden cardiac arrests it would be better if I took the call so I could remember the information better. I froze. I knew whatever came next was not going to be good news.

My grandma had been in the hospital for a few days prior to the phone call because she had broken her hip after falling but they could not do the surgery she needed because her hemoglobin count was severely low. They thought she was bleeding from somewhere but could not be certain where. When we visited her the day before, we were told they were going to do a colonoscopy to see if they could find any bleeding. She had already required numerous blood transfusions in just a few days.

The doctor went on to explain to me that they found a mass in her colon that was the source of the bleeding that they would need to perform surgery on to remove. The mass was consistent with cancer. My grandma, my only living grandparent, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. When I hung up the phone, I understood that I would be the one that had to tell my mom that her mom had been diagnosed with cancer. At the time, we didn’t know how bad it was, the prognosis, or the staging.

I approached my mom’s room with a pit in my stomach wondering how on earth I was going to do this. I wondered if I was capable of breaking this life-changing news or if there even was a right way of telling someone their loved one has cancer. I was scared that I would somehow do it wrong or cause more hurt than the news itself already did. I felt completely unprepared and was devastated by the news myself. I sat down next to my mom and asked her to call her oldest sister who lives a province away since I didn’t want to have to deliver the news multiple times. I also didn’t want my mom to have to be the one to break the news.

I knew this was going to be an incredibly difficult conversation to have. I took a deep breath, said I had gotten a call from Grandma’s doctor, and just told them what they found. Their mom had colon cancer and would need surgery. My mom fell silent. Her sister asked many questions that we simply did not have the answers to yet. I didn’t know what to tell her. When we hung up the phone with my mom’s sister, my mom and I embraced for a long hug. We were silent but still heard each other. The silence was deafening.

Later that afternoon, only a few hours after finding out my grandma had cancer, I had to leave to catch a ride to a conference I had committed to attending a year prior. On the car ride on the way there, my mom’s other sister called her and asked what was going on. Since she was driving, I answered the phone and again had to share the news that her mom had cancer. Soon ensued the asking of many more questions I had no answers for. I wanted nothing more than to provide answers and reassurance, but at that time I simply did not have any to give.

After I returned from the conference, I found out that my grandma’s cancer had spread, although they were able to remove the bleeding mass in surgery. The word terminal was said and I knew instantly what that meant. The news was worse than we ever could have been prepared for. My grandma and I were incredibly close when I was younger. I used to love calling her every week and staying the night at her house. I know that I am going to lose her soon, but I try not to focus on that very obvious point. I focus on remembering the fun times we had when she would take me to the park, we would have lunch together, or we would go for a walk to the Farmer’s Market where we would eat mini cinnamon sugar donuts together.

A photo of myself and my grandma at my grade 5 graduation ceremony, prior to her cancer diagnosis.

My grandma now resides in a long-term care facility that looks after her complex needs. As the cancer ravages her body and dementia ravages her mind, she becomes weaker and more frail as time goes on. She often doesn’t recognize my mom or I when we visit. It hurts to see her hurt. She also often doesn’t remember she has cancer and is dying. I won’t be the one to remind her again and again. I want her to enjoy the time she has left as much as possible.

Originally published: August 13, 2019
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