Child to Caregiver

Posted On Sep 20, 2022

Topic: Announcement, Hide on Homepage, Real Talk: Survivor, Patient & Family Stories, Your Source for Breaking News & Inspirational Stories
Child to Caregiver

By John McMahon

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Before I had even turned 40, the unthinkable happened: I lost both of my parents—my mom to pancreatic cancer, and just 10 months later, my dad to melanoma.

My mom, Grace, was the center of our family and the quintessential caregiver. She was a selfless nurturer, teacher and confidant to my three older siblings and me, my dad, her extended family and her many friends. My mom and I were especially close, and she encouraged me to follow my own path in life—even when that path took me away from my childhood home in Long Island, first to Illinois for college, and then to San Francisco where I started my engineering career.

During the 2016 holiday season—a time of year I always looked forward to spending with my parents—my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At 79, she was otherwise healthy and had no family history of the disease, making this earth-shattering diagnosis difficult to process. My family was in a state of shock and disbelief, and the spirit of the holiday season vanished for us. My mom was the glue that bound us together. She was the talented, vibrant woman who helped my dad cope with his ongoing health issues, and now she was faced with this life-threatening diagnosis. We quickly realized that our mom, the ultimate caregiver, would now be needing us to take care of her.

My mom unfortunately didn’t qualify for pancreatic cancer surgery. Instead, she started chemotherapy. When my mom began her treatment, my sister moved in with our parents and ultimately became a full-time caregiver. While my mom was struggling with debilitating pain, my dad, a retired Deputy Chief of the New York City Fire Department, was suffering with health issues too, so we cared for them both. I spent weeks at a time with them, traveling from my home in San Francisco to Long Island. My middle brother assisted as much as he could with two young sons at home, while my oldest brother was there when not traveling for business. Our family did all of the caretaking ourselves. This wasn’t where any of us wanted to be, but we couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

My hard-working parents instilled a strong work ethic and resourcefulness in us. Because of these values, we have always found a way to get things done, skills that were helpful in managing our mom’s disease. We talked to doctors, read medical articles and made the best possible decisions from the knowledge at hand for our mom’s care.

When the magnitude of what my family faced became too much, it helped me tremendously to have outlets and time to decompress. I squeezed in exercise whenever I could, even if that meant doing yoga classes at midnight. I started running, which helped me cope both physically and mentally with the stress and heartbreak of watching someone I love enduring such a painful illness. I indulged in life’s simplest of pleasures, whether it was my favorite slice of pizza or a breakfast sandwich. I spent time with my childhood friends who lived nearby and had the unwavering support of my wife, whose daily calls comforted and strengthened me.

For anyone considering becoming a caregiver for a loved one, I urge you to honestly ask yourself, “Am I willing to dedicate myself to this and do whatever’s necessary? Am I tough enough to handle this?” It’s important to focus on the problems immediately in front of you, not create new ones, and take things one day at a time. Regularly asking yourself, “Am I in over my head?” will help in knowing when it’s time to bring in professional care. In my mom’s case, that was hospice services shortly before she passed away.

Going through the experience of caring for my parents profoundly changed me. I was touched by how much my parents were loved, not just by their family, but by the entire community who supported them and my brothers, sister and me. I learned how to make the most of every moment, surround myself with those who I love and always pursue happiness because tomorrow offers no guarantees. As the youngest of four siblings, I didn’t always get a chance to speak up in my family. Now, I was leading in some situations. I spoke on behalf of my family at my mom’s funeral and other family gatherings. I gained confidence that if I could face losing my mom, and then losing my dad to his health issues, including melanoma, less than a year later, I could handle any situation. At a memorial service a year after my mom died, one of my parents’ long-time friends remarked, “What you kids have done for your parents—no kids do that.” In this conversation, I realized how special our response was to the situation.

While I appreciated her recognizing how devoted we were to our parents, I also wondered how our family would continue without its center. Holidays aren’t the same, so my wife, my siblings and I are creating new traditions of our own. Every September 9—my mom’s birthday—is like a punch to the gut, with the reality that she’s no longer here, hitting me as powerfully as the day she died. And even after several years, other triggers simply take my breath away. Eating a peach immediately brings back happy childhood summer memories of my mom and me enjoying them together at Jones Beach on Long Island.

After my mom died, back in California, I found comfort in being in nature and running outdoors. This year, as a tribute to my mom, I have set an ambitious goal that would make her proud. On September 24, I’m running my first 50K trail outside of Bend, Oregon. The 31-mile distance is 10 times longer than my longest race to date. By the end of it, I will have climbed the equivalent of 3,700 feet. This will be my first race since high school! So far, I’ve been training for four months.

In honor of my mom, I’m raising money to benefit the Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research and an organization dedicated to transforming pancreatic cancer into a curable disease. I’m so grateful for their commitment to fighting this disease and for ensuring 100% of all donations fund research. In memory of my mom and her bravery while fighting pancreatic cancer, I am dedicated to doing my part to make sure no other family experiences a gaping loss like mine. I know with each step I take in my upcoming race, I will feel her cheering me on and making me feel loved and protected, as always.

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