Maya Silver was 15 when her mother, Marsha, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She immediately feared what would happen to her mother… Had the doctors found it in time? Would her mother survive?
At the time, one thing Maya felt was certain; things would never be the same. “I had a sort of apocalyptic feeling in my gut that everything would be different forever. I wouldn’t be able to continue on as a normal teen. We couldn’t do normal family things anymore.”
The only person Maya truly felt comfortable talking to about her mom’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment was her younger sister, Daniela.
Not realizing his daughter’s struggle, Marc Silver, put all of his focus into his wife and her treatment. “At the time, I was so worried about Marsha and her cancer diagnosis and treatments that I just didn’t make time to reach out to Maya and her sister.”
Today, Marsha is cancer-free and looking back at the strain Maya went through during her mother’s battle against cancer, inspired them to share their story.
Marc and Maya co-authored “My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks,” which talks about how families can come together as a support network after a diagnosis, rather than stop communicating in the way Maya experienced.
Marc, Maya and Marsha shared their stories with Skinny Mom to remind others that everyone is affected when a family member is diagnosed with cancer.
How hard is it to acknowledge everyone’s independent feelings at a time like this?
It’s hard because first off, it’s hard to figure out your own feelings! No one is truly prepared for a cancer diagnosis. Often it comes out of the blue—as when my wife went for a mammogram and a radiologist told her, “Sure looks like cancer to me.” Sometimes the diagnosis follows a series of symptoms. But, even then, the very word “cancer” is a shock. You and everyone in your family will probably run through a range of emotions: Fear, anger, optimism, pessimism, hope, despair. That’s perfectly normal. And I think that’s what people don’t understand. You’re not a bad person if you’re angry. It’s OK to feel down sometimes. And it’s also normal not to want to talk about it. But, as a parent and spouse, you can let your family members know: I’m here for you, and I want you to feel you can always tell me how you’re feeling.
When and how did you find out Maya was having a hard time dealing with her mother’s health?
Years later, when we started talking about doing a book for teens coping with a parent’s cancer. While we were going through it as a family, Maya seemed like a typical teenager – more concerned about friends and school than anything else.
What are some signs parents should look for that show their teen/child is struggling to cope with this type of situation?
Really, anything that would give you pause under normal circumstances: Grades that are slipping, old friends being dropped and new ones entering the mix, too much time on video games instead of usual activities, worries about substance abuse.
How would you have approached the situation had you known Maya was struggling as well?
I should have just talked more with Maya, asked her how she was doing and really listened. At the time, I was so worried about Marsha and her cancer diagnosis and treatments that I just didn’t make time to reach out to Maya and her sister.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give husbands dealing with a spouse who has cancer, and what’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to fathers with children who have a parent with cancer?
For husbands dealing with a spouse who has cancer, my advice boils down to four words: “Shut up and listen!” Guys always want to fix things. You can’t “fix” your spouse’s cancer. But, you can be a tremendous help if you go to doctor’s visits with her, ask her how she’s feeling, share advice when she asks for it – but also remember, she’s the boss of you, and your job is to “shut up and listen.”
For fathers: I know sometimes the mother is the go-to person for family issues. Dad, make it clear that your kids can come to you with questions any time, any way – in person, on post-it notes, in a “cancer journal” you keep on the kitchen table, even via text or e-mail. And also, remember, cancer doesn’t mean your family can’t have fun. Sure, it’s tough. But, if you can plan any kind of enjoyable activity for the family – movie night, a hike, a bike ride, video games, whatever your family does to relax and have a good time together – it’s a welcome respite from the tyranny of cancer.
What was your very first feeling or thought when you were told your mother had cancer?
I recall the first feeling I had was one of disbelief mixed with a bit of shock: Is this really happening to me? Then the questions came. There is just so much uncertainty for a teen who probably knows little about a disease like cancer and has very little experience with significant life challenges. Everything feels up in the air. The biggest fear in my mind is that my mom wouldn’t survive.
Did you realize just how much it would affect you at first or did it take time to sink in?
I think I actually assumed at the outset that it would affect me more dramatically than it did. Before I understood my mother’s prognosis (which was pretty positive), I was terrified that my mom might not make it. I had a sort of apocalyptic feeling in my gut that everything would be different forever. I wouldn’t be able to continue on as a normal teen. We couldn’t do normal family things anymore. The whole world was turned upside-down. But then, once I had answers to my questions and adapted to family life with cancer, I regarded the situation a bit more pragmatically.
What was the first thing you Google’d or looked up?
This was before the days of rampant Google searching, but I’m sure that if it were today, the first thing I would Google would be about survivorship of breast cancer. What are the odds of dying? How long would this process take? We warn teens to be careful about online research regarding their parent’s illness because of the enormous amount of both misinformation and information that simple doesn’t apply to their situation. A Google search can leave the teen with the wrong impression about what is happening, causing unnecessary anxiety.
A USA Today article said: “Some teens are openly annoyed that a parent is no longer able to drive them to the mall. Or angry that their friends look at them with “pity eyes.” Others are embarrassed by a parent’s new appearance. Some feel jealous someone else is getting all the attention. Some feel guilty, because they wish it was the other parent who got cancer.” What did you personally feel?
I felt a range of many of these complex emotions that teens often experience during a parent’s cancer. I wasn’t in denial, but I never (and I mean never) wanted to talk about it with friends, the family, teachers, anyone. The only person I remember wanting to talk about it with was Daniela, my younger sister, because in my mind she was the only one who could possibly understand what was going on. It wasn’t that I was in denial, but I just kind of wanted to put my head down and get through it. I didn’t want my friends to feel bad for me or start thinking of me as the girl whose mom had cancer. I was embarrassed, as many teens are, about my mother’s baldness. As a result of these feelings, I also experienced a great deal of guilt about the way I dealt with my mom’s breast cancer both during and after the fact. When you feel shame over your very sick mother, it’s easy to start privately wondering whether you’re a bad person.
Again the USA Today article said: “Teens want to be independent, but cancer draws them home.” Do you think this made you “grow up” at a time when you wanted to be more… “reckless?”
For better or worse, I was pretty intent on not being drawn back into the family fold. I stayed as busy as possible at school with academics, sports and extracurricular activities and hung out with my friends often outside the house. I regret not being more present at home to spend time with my family and support my mom.
What’s the one piece of advice you have now that you wish you could tell yourself then?
Talk about it! I was so uncomfortable discussing my mom’s breast cancer with anyone outside the family that it was almost crippling. Just hearing the word “cancer” (no matter the context) felt like a punch in the gut. In challenging times, it’s so critical to have a strong support network of family and friends. For me, the people were there, but I didn’t allow them to act as a support network for me. Until I wrote the book with my dad, I was still pretty uncomfortable discussing my mom’s cancer. Talk about it, communicate and don’t be afraid of the word “cancer.”
How did you react to your husband and daughter wanting to write a book focusing on their feelings with your cancer?
Cancer really sucks, but this is a way to make lemonade out of the lemons. I felt it was important to focus on how a parent’s cancer affects the kids – it’s easy not to think about that.
How hard is it to acknowledge everyone’s feelings at a time like this?
I didn’t dwell on my family’s feelings. I was really caught up in my own fight. Maybe I should have been more cognizant. But, my daughters made it seem like it was not big deal, and I just left it at that. I didn’t really think that there must be more to their feelings than meets the eye. I accepted that they seemed fine so they must be fine. It was easier to feel that way and not to worry about how they were feeling.
Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
I guess I wish I’d been more aware of their reaction, that I’d asked, “How are you feeling, how are your friends reacting, do you have any questions?”
What advice would you give to husbands dealing with a spouse with cancer?
It’s so important to be truly honest about what you’re feeling.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give a mom going through cancer while trying to maintain a normal family life?
Don’t try to make it like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. That’s not going to be authentic. Your family life will be different – and you should let the kids know that. Let them know you might need their help around the house more than before. But, also let them know that you’ll be there for them if they have any questions or concerns.
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