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Healthy Living

Caring For A Parent With Terminal Cancer In Your 20s

Six months ago, my dad walked into the hospital with a stomach ache and out with a diagnosis: stage IV pancreatic cancer. Living 200 miles away, but commuting home almost every weekend, the following months were a blur — a rush to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, a rush to start chemo, the screeching halt of the oncologist’s words, “It’s just not going to work.”

Finally ending the fight on January 14, 2016.

Alexandra Palmerton and her father Gary Higgins.
Alexandra Palmerton and her father Gary Higgins.

Nothing and no one can prepare you for a terminal diagnosis for a parent in your 20s, especially one that you’re close to. My bond with my dad extended far beyond the “daddy’s girl” stereotype. I called him for every occasion — about career advice, car repairs, the stupid driver that cut me off on the way to work, budgeting for retirement, a boy that broke my heart, the one that made it whole again. My dad was the steady hand that guided a lot of my biggest decisions thus far. The thought that his hand could be even slightly weakened in the wake of a terrible disease was not only unbearable but unspeakably unfair.

The American job market or hustle of your 20s is not well-equipped for a life shift such as this. How do you maintain your career and personal life when your heart and soul is 200 miles away in a hospital bed? How do you properly communicate these changes to a boss in his 40s with two parents still alive and well? How do you embrace the final moments with someone you care for so deeply without uprooting your entire life?

There’s no quick equation, no one-size-fits-all solution for adjusting your life to a devastating change such as this, but these are tips that have worked for me.

Alexandra, her husband and her father in Colorado for Thanksgiving.
Alexandra, her husband and her father in Colorado for Thanksgiving.

Find Your Support Elsewhere

During a terrible time such as this, a natural reaction is to reach out to immediate family. In this case, it simply wasn’t possible. With my mom and brother grappling with the same problems, we couldn’t sustainably rely on each other.

We needed to reach out to others that could be more emotionally consistent. For me, it was old friends, new friends, coworkers with similar stories, a therapist, my (then) boyfriend. Anyone that could provide a more stable shoulder to lean on.

Alexandra & her father on her wedding day, two months after his diagnosis.
Alexandra & her father on her wedding day, two months after his diagnosis.

Focus On What Matters

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to focus on the diagnosis and ultimate outcome rather than the time you have left.

One day, my mom was crying in the garage and screamed to my brother, “How are we going to live without him?”

He replied, “Why are you out here worrying about that, when you could be inside living what’s left with him?”

He’s right. So we shifted. We traveled — to Alaska, to Colorado, to visit my then home in Atlanta, to the mountains in Tennessee. I planned an amazing wedding with my boyfriend of five years so my dad could be a part of the celebration. He walked me down the aisle two months later. We set goals for trips and events so he always had something to work towards. We focused on doing things my family truly loves instead of dwelling on what’s to come, and it extended my dad’s life several months longer than the doctors anticipated. Attitude is everything. Statistics are nothing.

Alexandra and her father in Denali National Park, Alaska.
Alexandra and her father in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Balance, Balance, Balance

Sitting in the hospital the day we decided to end treatment in October, my gut instinct was to drop everything, quit my job, move back home, and be with my dad. Realistically, this didn’t fit with my personality or my lifestyle. I loved my job, I loved my home in Atlanta, and I was about to get married.

Isolation was going to keep me from taking proper care of myself, so I tried to make the best of both worlds for as long as possible. I crafted a schedule with my job and through FMLA so I could balance being at home with my parents and maintaining a work schedule that worked for both of us. I alternated time at home in Tennessee with my parents and time in Atlanta with my new husband. I made plans with friends. I forced myself to maintain hobbies I used to enjoy — cooking, reading, and writing — even if they had lost their flavor. I tried to laugh once a day, even if it was for a second.

Alexandra and her father celebrating his birthday in the hospital. 
Alexandra and her father celebrating his birthday in the hospital. 

Know When It’s Time

This is impossible to predict, and only you can make the decision, but a time will come to move home if you are willing and able. For me, it was when my family clearly needed a fourth leg to stand on to continue to get through the day.

Conveniently, it was during the holidays. I was lucky enough to have a job that let me build trust over time so I could work remotely as I cared for him in his final weeks. Being home and spending time with him as he declined was the most horrible, wonderful, terrible, incredible thing. The time spent sitting in bed, drinking wine, and watching Christmas movies, was time I could never get back, and I’m grateful that I waited until the time was right to make the decision to embrace it.

Alexandra and her father embracing their final moments. 
Alexandra and her father embracing their final moments. 

I hope that you’re reading this out of curiosity and not necessity. If it’s the latter, know that you’re not alone. I wrote this after scrolling through the internet, looking for advice like this at 4 a.m. I hope, if that’s you, that you can find a balance that works for you. That you can take care of yourself, find the support you need, and focus on what matters. I hope you can find what that is and live out every last minute with no regrets.

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This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.