How To Be A 20-Something Whose Mom Is Dying Of Cancer

Life events will change you, but you have control over how they change you.
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A week before starting my new job at an investment bank in New York, my parents came to visit. I was in training, and took Friday night off to see the Book of Mormon on Broadway.

My mom was complaining of severe back pain, so we cancelled dinner and went back to their hotel. An hour later, my dad called saying that they had rushed to the downtown emergency room and needed help. I took a cab over, went to the back room and saw my mom screaming in pain. I helped comfort her as they setup pain killers and ran some tests. As 5 a.m. rolled around, I decided to go home to get some sleep — we’d find out the test results in the morning. It was probably gall bladder stones or something.

I woke up three hours later to a call from my dad saying I should come down to the hospital right way. It sounded serious and I was nervous, but had no idea what to expect. I finally got to the hospital room and the doctor explained that my mom had metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her spine. It felt like a scene from a movie where all the air and sound were sucked out of the room, and I didn’t know how to respond.

“I finally got to the hospital room and the doctor explained that my mom had metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her spine.”

We were three Canadians stuck in a downtown hospital in Manhattan. Still before my first official day of work — I called my mentor at Goldman — and asked for advice. She was able to connect us with the best doctors in New York and help transfer my mom to a swanky wing of the New York Presbyterian hospital. It felt really good to be able to give back to my parents as a “banker in New York," even before I wrote my Series 79 exam.

New York Presbyterian

The next two weeks comprised of studying for my Series 79 and building financial models from the hospital room while trying to get my new life started.

I’ve seen a lot of BuzzFeed articles giving life advice for “twenty somethings." The common thread that ties them all together: Get lost in the streets of Paris and quit your job to travel the world.

For obvious reasons, these didn’t resonate with me. What about people who have to deal with something that transcends the existential crises of upper-middle class white people? Something that no amount of money or french wine can shield you from. Something like your mom dying of cancer.

Throughout the last 2.5 years, my mom battled, and ultimately passed away, from stage IV breast cancer. I’ve found there are four broad phases of dealing with this while also living life in your early 20s:

Phase 1: Indecision

Shortly into my time at Goldman, I was offered an opportunity to move across the country to be a Product Manager at Facebook.

This decision came with a lot of risk and uncertainty. I liked my job at Goldman; I knew what I was doing; it was comfortable; it was exciting.

Beyond the normal challenges of making decisions with life, love and careers in your 20's, I had the nagging questions of how it impacted my Mom and vice versa. Am I doing this because my mom is sick? Is that OK?

“Risk is real, but not the type of risk people usually focus on. Real risks include: 1. Dying and 2. Dying with regrets.”

Despite the challenges and uncertainty of starting a new job while my mom was sick, taking a risk seemed easier in many ways. If you can die at any time, why not take a chance to pursue or discover a new passion? As Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Product launch @ FB

Phase 2: Lack of Motivation

In the fall of 2014, as my mom’s condition was deteriorating, I was responsible for leading an important initiative for Facebook Messenger.

Executing a global product roll-out; responding to misinformation in the press; writing daily updates to the executive team and keeping the team motivated were all part of my daily responsibilities.

There’s a certain maximum amount of stress that any individual person can handle, and tough personal challenges can bring you to 80 percent of your maximum before you even get into work.

The remaining 20 percent+ is easily filled by the below app store review:

Phase 3: Emptiness

You try to distract yourself with work but there is something fundamentally missing. Sadness will hit you unexpectedly and repeatedly every time something reminds you of your Mom.

“Life events will change you; but you have control over how they change you.”

Phase 4: Recovery

Life events will change you, but you have control over how they change you. Sometimes, shocks to the system are a necessary opportunity to assess what really matters to you and grow as a person.

Here are some ways this experience has had a positive impact on my life:

1. Define your passions: If the challenge of your 20s is to a) define your values and b) align your life with those values; a death in the family can accelerate your need to do both. Finding these values early and pursuing them aggressively is a gift; often delayed.

2. Love: Many of my friends and colleagues who live away from home visit once or twice a year. From this perspective, I was fortunate enough to cram 15+ years of time with my mom into two. It also gives you an opportunity to lean on friends and family for support. During the funeral, my childhood friends flew in from around the country without even being asked. People sent flowers and cookies and made phone calls. It made me really appreciate the important people in my life.

3. Take risks: Life is short and uncertain. Risk is real, but not the type of risk people usually focus on. Real risks include: 1. Dying and 2. Dying with regrets. Everything else are just manufactured barriers preventing you from pursuing your dreams.

At a time when most “20-somethings” have an opportunity to be selfish and carefree; to focus on getting lost in the streets of Paris and obsessing over life decisions; I had a different experience. I hope sharing this story can help others going through similar challenges.

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