If Mom Has Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I sometimes hear from middle-aged friends who tell me that their mother (or father) was just diagnosed with cancer. They then launch into their plans for her treatment.

This is when I ask, “What does your mom want?”

This question is usually met by a 4 or 5 second pause, followed by a hesitant, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what does your mom want? Have you asked her?”

You’d be surprised how often mom hasn’t been asked.

In some cases, adult children want mom to have the most aggressive treatment possible even if that treatment is likely to extend her life for only a few months and at the cost of making her miserable.

In other cases, children want to take their mother across the country to the world’s expert on her disease when she would be more comfortable staying with the doctors who know her and have treated her for many years.

Sometimes the most aggressive therapy is the best approach, and sometimes it does make sense to travel to see the world’s expert. But, please, don’t make assumptions about what your mother wants. Ask her.

It’s often helpful to involve your mother’s primary care physician in the decision-making process. The specialists involved in your mother’s care will focus on what can be done. The primary care physician can help your mother sort through what should be done, based on her overall condition, her wishes, and a host of other factors.

What’s most important for a daughter or son in dealing with a mother’s cancer is simply to be present for her. Be available when she wants to talk and support her in the choices she makes. This is hard for many of us because we’re accustomed to fixing things. We tend to focus too much on the fix and not enough on the person.

Health care providers will naturally focus on your mother’s cancer. As a family member, you have the opportunity and privilege of focusing on her as a person. It’s the best gift you’ll ever give her.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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