My Mom's Cancer Diagnosis Changed My Perspective On Growing Up

Welcome to Life Begins At. Refinery29 is proud to team up with AARP to bring you honest, intimate stories that aim to uncover all the unique experiences that come along with living — no matter your age. It’s time we shed the negative stereotypes, unconscious cultural bias, and misconceptions associated with age and get real about what aging really looks like for us. Because it’s not about how old you are; life begins when you decide to start living it. Have your own story to share about aging? Fill out this form or email us at
“This,” I told my parents as I pulled up to their home with my carload of belongings, “is very, very temporary.” I was a newly single-when-I-thought-I’d-be-engaged 31-year-old and my plan was to troll Craigslist until I found an apartment. But just a month into living back at home, we learned that the surgery to remove my mother’s lymph nodes a few months prior had been unsuccessful. Her melanoma had advanced to stage IV. So, I brought in the last suitcase left in my trunk, finally unpacked the boxes I’d been storing in the basement, and decided to make the temporary move back into my childhood bedroom a permanent one.
The millennial generation is frequently criticized for being self-absorbed and avoiding adult responsibility at all costs. And yet, according to a report by AARP, about 10 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 serve as caregivers for a loved one, which means that out of four family caregivers in the U.S., one is a millennial. Though I was several years into adulthood at the time that my mom got sick, I still relied on my parents for emotional support, frequently picking up the phone to ask my mom questions about everything from What exactly do they mean by hand wash only? to Should I stay even though I know he doesn’t love me? I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be that person for my parents. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to me to worry about them at all until I was presented with a reason to.

About 10 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 serve as caregivers for a loved one.

AARP Caregiving Report
Once I moved in, every day was filled with so much overwhelming uncertainty that I immediately turned to the things I felt I could control. I synced all of our iCals so that I could keep track of doctor appointments, making sure to mark important dates like immunotherapy treatments every other Thursday on the paper calendar in the kitchen. Though it was my mom who was sick, I also lessened my dad’s load as much as possible, taking over household chores and cooking dinner during the week. We discussed redrafting wills and organizing important documents, which always led to an argument about me being a fatalist. “Realist,” I would correct them, as I went back to juicing kale and celery or swapping out their cleaning supplies with greener options, all of which felt safer than sitting in my grief.
Reaching for anything that I could to fix the unfixable, I learned all I could about the correlation between diet and disease, manifesting with crystals, sound healing, and creating vision boards. Nothing was off the table. As I learned more, I implemented a strict anti-inflammatory diet for my parents and stripped their pantry of refined carbohydrates and products with trans fat. After discovering my dad’s secret stash of mini chocolate bars and gummy candy, I tossed them too, which resulted in a conversation about boundaries. “I don’t think you understand how important it is to watch what we eat,” I told him, frustrated by the sudden role change. “I do know. I do,” he said, on the verge of tears. It was then that I saw my dad as a fallible human being, terrified of losing his wife of nearly 50 years. I suddenly felt less like an adult showing up for my parents and more like a child who needed everyone to see it my way. At 31 years old, it occurred to me just how much I still had to learn about compassion. Caregiving teaches you things like that.
Our new normal was difficult to process most days. The doctors warned us about how the treatment would make my mom tired and exhaust her body and how the diagnosis itself was going to add a considerable amount of stress. We were told that she should take it easy, drink plenty of fluids, and not lift anything heavy. Things, we all agreed, that we could prepare for. But no one tells you about the days when you’ll come home from work at 4 in the afternoon to find your mom curled up in such a deep sleep that you’ll tiptoe to the side of her bed to make sure she’s breathing. There is no way to prepare for the sheer panic you feel until you see her chest rise and fall.

No one tells you about the days when you’ll come home from work at 4 in the afternoon to find your mom curled up in such a deep sleep that you’ll tiptoe to the side of her bed to make sure she’s breathing.

Some days, I found myself desperately jealous of my friends’ daily stress of, Will he ask me on a second date? What costume will my daughter wear on Halloween? Do I have enough money to close on the apartment that I want? It all sounded so much better than, Will this month’s scan show that the cancer has moved to her lungs? Is this the phone call that will tell us how much time we have left with her?
Now, four years later, I’m still living with my parents and taking care of them in many ways. I’ve made the decision to live at home and spend time together while we still have it. It is both a blessing and a curse to be this person for my parents. I’m reminded every day that they won’t be here forever, and knowing that leaves me feeling gutted. But the relationship that I have with them has changed drastically over the past few years, and my role as their caregiver has evolved into a deep friendship. The worry that I have for them never went away. Their physical health and general wellbeing is on my mind every day.
Caregiving at this age comes with a great deal of daily acceptance. Accepting the unacceptable, accepting that my mom may die before she helps me pick out a wedding dress, before I have a baby and a million questions about feeding schedules, before I’m ready to live in this world without a mother. Her cancer diagnosis and my sudden role as her caregiver shined a spotlight on how important it is to be present in the here and now. More importantly, it pushed me to be the kind of person who shows up for others even when that feels shaky and uncertain. There became a “Before Mom Got Sick” period of my life and an “After Mom Got Sick” period. Somewhere along the way, I learned how to live a life I’m really proud of.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series