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‘My Mother Has Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer, and I’m Falling Apart’

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Hi, Polly,

My mother has cancer. She was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer three weeks ago and has already had her first round of chemo. She and my dad are playing the situation down to such a degree that I feel like I’m drowning for no reason. They keep telling me that there’s nothing to worry about, that the chemo’s going to sort it, and then the surgery afterward will sort it if the chemo doesn’t. Mum told my sister and I not to bother coming to her first round of chemo (we were there anyway, of course). My sister and I are both struggling because we feel like we have no room to be scared. I’m not going to tell my parents how to deal with this, because obviously people react differently to things like this, but this feels like all of the fear and sadness and anxiety I’m feeling is invalid, or misplaced.

I’m struggling. Studying is hard when I keep zoning out — not thinking about the situation specifically, just because I’m distracted and sad all the time. Working makes me depressed. My eating habits are out of whack and I’m gaining weight quickly, which is making me feel terrible about myself. I have deadlines to meet, and I’m worried I’m not going to do myself justice. I took about a week off from everything when I first found out, which was very helpful, but I can’t do that anymore. I don’t want to see anyone besides the person I’m seeing, and I get random moments of panic that mean I have to be alone all of a sudden, forcing people out of my house or leaving events in an instant so that no one will see me hyperventilating. The events I have been to have just made me feel pointless, watching everyone having fun and wondering what the fuck is going on.

I don’t know what to do with myself. I keep desperately demanding more from people. It feels like no one else is seeing what is happening — though I’m blessed with more people I love than seems fair, people who keep offering help and kindness whenever I need it, I still feel like most of the time it’s all too muted. I want everything to be bigger. I want other people to treat this with the bigness that it deserves, with the madness and anxiety and fear. To be expected to walk sensibly and quietly through life and accept people’s kind nothings with smiles and nods while my mother describes how fine everything is going to be just seems so at odds with what is happening — she might die! What if she does? How do I live without her? I keep seeking out this intensity with a desperation that makes it hard to just be with people who are doing their best.

I’m getting a therapist and might go on medication. But this will last, for months and months at least. And even if it clears, and she goes into remission, it could come back at any time. I can never feel safe again. And that realization will never end. How do I develop coping mechanisms for this? What do I do with myself, now and forever? It’s not a crisis — it’s not a grief that I can see having an end date, because it will just last on and on forever until she finally dies. Instead, I’m just living with this fear, and I don’t know what to do with it — don’t know how to cope.

What do I do with myself during this time? There are so many different directions I think I should take. I don’t know which one. I don’t know how to listen to myself when this is so big.

Help me, please.


Dear Fearful,

When I was 25 years old, I was drunk at a party and I got a call telling me that my father had died of a heart attack that night. I stood in the middle of the room and poured a beer over the top of my head. We were all doomed, reality was pliable, nothing mattered, nothing we talked about or did added up, we should all paint ourselves blue and dance, we should all get naked and have sex, we should all run to the nearest rocky cliff and hurl ourselves off.

But all that happened was that the conversation stopped and I took a shower and cried, then went to bed, then got up and cried while I drove home. My breakdown was not dramatic and poignant. I was not beautiful and thoughtful and serene and wise. I was a sloppy, confused, drunk young woman at a crowded party at a warehouse in Oakland. My friends were there, and they were good to me, but there were other people there, too, and everyone felt outmatched by the circumstances. I had ruined the party. The whole thing felt depressing and unfortunate. I became a walking embodiment of depressing misfortune.

But that night was really just the tip of the iceberg. When someone dies and when someone is dying and when someone is sick and might die OR might survive, you have the worst day you’ve ever had, and then you keep having worst days, over and over. And I want to tell you right now that for me personally, your situation would be harder for me than mine was. Even though there was no hope, and I didn’t get to say good-bye, I also didn’t have to deal with the unknown. For a neurotic like me, the unknown would’ve torn my life to shreds. The stress and the holding everything at bay until the true outcome was known would’ve crushed me into the ground. So I want you to know that I can imagine, at least a tiny bit, where you are right now. You are on Mars, your cells are freezing by the millisecond, the oxidized iron dust is flying into your face, you are dissolving and floating into the atmosphere, into space, into the sun, and the people around you are saying, “How’s it going?” and “Hey, you just have to wait and see, right?” and “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” and “We’ve got this” and “It is what it is.”

This is the moment when you look around and you say to yourself, “We live in the absolute worst, emptiest, most ridiculous, most twisted, denial-embracing culture in the history of humankind.” This is the moment when you say to yourself, “I don’t see the point of school or anything, really. I cannot possibly be asked to engage in this torturously trivial work while the stars fall from the fucking sky.” This is the moment when you call your mother to say “The stars are dropping out of the sky! I’m scared and I don’t know what to do!” and she says, “Those are just fireworks. Go get some sleep. Everything will be fine.”

It is torture. You are choking on iron fucking dust and no one can see it. It is fucking torture, and I am so, so sorry.

Let’s stay there for another minute, together: This hurts beyond hurt. This is crushing. I think about how bad it is for you right now, and I feel terrible. I’m not just crying right now — my whole fucking head feels like it’s turning into salt water.

So, now we’re going to talk about the things you can do, the actions you can take, just to exist without exploding into pieces every few seconds. First, we have to acknowledge that you might not be able to talk to your parents about this the way you want to. Facing the prospect of your own death while trying to protect your daughter from that pain is pretty much the nightmare scenario of a lifetime. Your mother might very well believe that she will be fine, and she might have plenty of reasons for believing that, and she might, in fact, be fine. She might believe that she will not be fine, but she might feel that it’s best to handle it this way. I have a tendency, personally, to expect everyone else to handle things the way I would handle them. I had a friend who died of cancer a few years ago, and he didn’t know he was dying until two weeks before he died. He was telling everyone he had a few more years, and even though we weren’t talking to his doctor, we had some clear indications that his time was running out quickly. What was our role there? I felt tortured by it, but my sister, who is a cancer surgeon, made it very clear to me that you have to take your cues from the patient. The patient knows what they want (even if they don’t, really, know consciously). Sometimes people tell a story and everyone goes along with it. It’s just not up to anyone but the sick person how to proceed.

That alone is just absurdly unsettling, particularly if you’re someone who feels compelled to tell the truth at all times, even in the most inappropriate circumstances. The irony, of course, is that when your parents tend to say things like “Everything is fine,” you end up becoming a person who tends to say things like “THE WORLD IS FUCKING ENDING, WAKE UP! I WILL NOT DO THIS WITH YOU!” I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there’s a right and wrong way to do something as hard as this. I just want you to be very aware of your perspective on the world, and how it contrasts and conflicts with your parents’ perspective. Keep observing that and try not to “fix” it, even though it feels wrong sometimes. I also want you to be open to talking to your mother’s doctor, so you understand the plan and the ideas guiding the plan, if that’s okay with your mother. Ultimately, only you can decide how you want to talk to her or navigate this sickness with her. It’s great that you’ll have a therapist to help you do that. Try to respect your mother’s choices under beyond-difficult circumstances, and forgive yourself when you fail to do so.

That goes for everything right now. You’re going to try some shit, and you’re going to fail. You’re going to walk and then collapse and then crawl. Forgive yourself. Forgive your parents. Forgive your zombie-fucking-trivia-focused friends and forgive this big stupid dipshit culture we live in, over and over again. Open your heart in spite of impossible circumstances, simply because it helps.

What does it take to open your heart on Mars, as oxidized iron dust fills your lungs and your eyeballs freeze into marbles? It takes breathing in the devastation instead of fighting it. It takes being vulnerable instead of smashing things and people. It takes feeling instead of thinking.

That last one is crucial for you. As you said, you’re on this long road. You aren’t in danger of pouring one beer over your head at a party, then flying home for two months to cry all day. You’re in danger of pouring a beer over your head day after day after day — or worse, bottling it all up and getting more and more stressed out until you can’t even function because your mind is a broken computer that’s spewing smoke and sparks. That’s where thinking and thinking and thinking in circles about what comes next will get you. “What if this doesn’t work? What if this next thing fails? What if she dies this year, next year, five years from now? What if she falls apart before my eyes over the course of a whole fucking decade?” Fuck cancer, a million fucking times over.

The point is, don’t use your mind to “fix” this. Your mind will tell you bad stories, always and forever. Your mind wants to solve this unsolvable problem. Stand in the freezing-ass dust instead and say, “I live here now, on Mars.”

Stand at the event, or the party — as your head dissolves into salt water, as you become an ocean wave, crashing all over everyone, spilling their drinks, a walking catastrophe — and say, “This is who I am now.” This is who you are now. Other people can make other choices, and that’s okay for them. Mad respect for keeping your head screwed onto your neck. Mad respect for not living on an uninhabitable, icy desert planet! Mad respect for not becoming a tidal wave that pulverizes hard rocks into sand! And yet: This. Is. Who. I. Am.

You are allowed to do this your way. And the more you give yourself room to do it your way, the more you will give other people — your mother, your father, your sister, your partner, your friends — room to do it their way. If they want to gasp and gawk at you or avoid you or live in the unreal world with the rest of the happy confused zombies who like to pretend that the apocalypse is just a fun party with fireworks, they can do that. Forgive them.

Practically speaking, you should exercise more than you ever have before, and you should keep doing your work, even though you hate it and it feels trivial and you hate everything and the world is ending so why the fuck bother? Notice, with your body, how much hard-work-induced suffering you can stand. If you’re feeling instead of thinking, suffering is good. Suffering, sweating it all out, feeling your true hunger, feeling when you are truly full, feeling when you want to have sex (it’s a sickness/death/I’m alive thing, as you probably already know), feeling when you want to sleep: These are the directions you want to get from your body at this time of toxic dust and marble eyeballs. Thinking is not that good for you on Mars. It leads to fear and rage, which can be okay sometimes, but it also leads to lathering up your anxiety (“I can’t do this! I need control! This will only get worse!”). Feeling leads to letting the fear and rage and guilt and sadness wash over you. You stand in one place, without running away, and you say, “I am helpless to this. I am going to be crushed by this. This is already crushing me. I am already gone.”

When my mother got breast cancer 20 years ago (she survived it), she told me, “Dying isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me. If my kids died, that would be the worst thing. This isn’t that bad, honestly.” I didn’t get it. So I wrote her a long letter about how much I loved her. She read the first line and then she put it away. She told me it was too much. That hurt my feelings. I felt like my feelings didn’t matter to her, ever. Why was I always too much?

I was immature. My mother is my mother, and she gets to choose what she does. I chose to write everything down, because I am who I am. Neither of us made a big mistake. It was okay. We were both on Mars, in our own ways, separately. I forgive both of us, who did what we did then, and I forgive us now, as we continue to get confused and frustrated by each other occasionally. I can forgive us because I’m not afraid to say, “This is who I am now. This is how I’m going to do it.” I can also say, “I don’t know how to do this.” I can also say, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be this person.” I can forgive myself for being wherever the fuck I happen to land. That is one of the hardest things to do, but it helps make almost every single thing in life more bearable.

I mention all of this with my mom because I suspect that you’re a lot like me. You’re not going to smile and play along with most things. You’re going to pulverize hard rocks into sand. You can’t do it any other way. I want you to forgive yourself for that. I want you to forgive your mother for not appreciating you so much, at times, as she does this her own way.  She can’t build you a rocket ship to get off Mars, and she knows that, even if she can’t say it and never will.

I can’t build you a rocket ship to get off Mars, either. I just want you to know that when you stand in the dust and you see that this is who you are now, you are beautiful beyond measure. Even though you don’t want this, and you never did, even though it feels like it will just get worse and worse from here, if it does get worse and worse, you will expand and become even more beautiful, and so will your mother, and so will this godforsaken fucked-up scary horrible world. Your love and your grief and your devastating sadness are the realest things in the whole universe. Even as the world ends — and it does, for all of us — you are going to feel all of it. That’s the best you can do. Letting these feelings in doesn’t make work and socializing and ordinary life impossible. It makes these things more bearable. If you invite your genuine, struggling, lost self into these situations, it will make them less torturous for you, and the people around you will benefit and grow from witnessing your fear and your grace, even if that’s not how it feels to you right now.

This is who you are now. It is a curse and a gift. The best things and the worst things are one and the same. Don’t fight this, or hide from it. Forgive yourself. You will survive. Forgive yourself for that, too. We will all dissolve and fly into the sun eventually. One will go and another will follow. It’s not the worst thing that could happen to us. Clinging to the Earth, panicking about the end, that is the worst thing. So let it in. This is who we are now.


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‘My Mother Has Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer and I’m Falling Apart’