Experts Share Advice on Dealing With a Parent’s Cancer Diagnosis

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A common worst nightmare is our parents falling seriously unwell. It’s easy for minds to spiral with dark thoughts that we try so hard to push away. But for many across the country, handling the news that a parent has been diagnosed with a long-term illness is a reality that has already rocked their world.

The news of King Charles III’s cancer diagnosis on 5 Feb. saw a sudden 1000 percent surge in Google searches for prostate cancer, as people assumed this must be the cause following a hospital procedure in January. However, a statement from Buckingham Palace declined to disclose the type of cancer, while a palace spokesperson confirmed to The Independent that he does not have cancer of the prostate, but another kind.

“It is natural that people will respond differently . . . just ensuring you’re there for each other and ready to talk is key.”

Nonetheless, the widespread shock around the monarch’s diagnosis was fuelled by the news of Prince Harry’s return to the UK, sparking conversations around how to deal with the difficult news of a parent’s health diagnosis. While the Royals may seem to live completely different lives to most, and Charles’ prognosis is not yet known, moments like this remind us that these situations happen every day amongst families all over the world. Each year, around 393,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer and, on average, someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer at least every 90 seconds, according to Macmillan Cancer Support.

Founder and Director of The Loss Project, Carly Attridge, believes that, while a parent’s diagnosis may come as a shock, there is no right or wrong way to respond – and that’s okay. “I think ensuring that everyone has a safe and brave space to share emotions, that all emotions are welcome, making space so that people can talk if they want to, but also that the receiver is able to listen openly,” she tells POPSUGAR.

“It is natural that people will respond differently, they may want to avoid the subject, be in denial, or not be up for talking, just ensuring you’re there for each other and ready to talk when you’re ready is key. It’s ok if you get it wrong, but there is also no rule book, so go with what is best for you and those around you.”

Image Source: Carl De Souza / Getty Images

Similarly, Dr. Hana Patel, NHS GP and GP Medico-Legal Expert Witness, shares the importance of avoiding assumptions and to be mindful of an ill parent’s mood. She says: “They may feel happy one day and sad the next. Remember that they might not want to talk or think about their cancer all of the time. Try not to take it personally if they don’t want to talk about their cancer and respect their need for privacy or to have some quiet time. On the other hand, having a normal conversation about everyday things and sharing a joke can sometimes be very welcome.”

Laura, 25, from Leeds, shares that her dad was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2019. He briefly recovered before it returned again in 2022. The second diagnosis caused her to spiral into a constant feeling of dread and an obsession with “depressing statistics”, resulting in a sense of bitterness towards her friends.

“I’m glad we’re still able to laugh and have happy days. That’s been the biggest comfort.”

“Initially, I felt like they weren’t handling it well or being there for me enough and it was extremely lonely,” she tells POPSUGAR. “I didn’t understand why people weren’t asking about him, but now I realise they just didn’t know how to navigate something like this which is okay. I see all the other things they were doing to support me – buying me food, making plans to distract me, supporting my work etc.” There are many ways that people can show they care, sometimes simply checking in with a message can be the most appreciated action.

Attridge praises practises like journalling as a way to understand the myriad of thoughts, like the ones Laura was faced with. You may be feeling angry, confused, or anxious, perhaps even relieved that there has been a diagnosis after some time waiting for results “I do morning pages as a great way of getting everything out of my head and onto the page, knowing no one is going to read them or judge me for them,” Attridge adds, noting that The Loss Project has a range of writing prompts and journalling options that people have previously resonated with.

While she still finds it difficult to get her head around her dad’s ill health, Laura’s experience has helped her to “see the joy in the little things”, a saying she finds cringey, but also admirable. When suddenly faced with your parent’s mortality, it can be a difficult to confront the future, but she’s overcome the preemptive grief she initially felt and has found focusing on the present the most rewarding.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever come to terms with it,” Laura days. “There’s a lot of darkness, but I’m glad we’re still able to laugh and have happy days. That’s been the biggest comfort.”

Expert Tips to Help After a Parent’s Health Diagnosis

Attridge and Dr. Patel offer quick tips on how to help navigate the difficult time following the news of a parent’s health diagnosis below.

  • Patience, empathy, and openness without judgement can make navigating this time easier for you.
  • Find someone amongst your support network, or a trained professional, who is able to hold space for you. While you’re supporting your parent, you’ll need an outlet, too.
  • Avoid trying to fix the person or situation, just being there will be enough.
  • Finding a space of solitude and quiet reflection can help to quieten the mind. This might be meditation, taking some time out for self-care, or getting outside and going for a walk.
  • If you or someone you know is struggling with difficult news, there are a number of charity helplines which offer support. Macmillan Cancer Support‘s helpline is call 0808 808 00 00, Marie Curie‘s helpline is 0800 090 2309, and Maggie’s Centres‘ helpline is 0300 123 1801.

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