Losing a Parent to Cancer
- Musician and author Michelle Zauner recently opened up about the story behind her best-selling memoir ‘Crying in H Mart.’
- Zauner was just 25 when her mother, Chongmi, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and lost her battle with the disease. To cope her diagnosis and death, Zauner turned to H Mart, a Korean-owned grocery store chain, and cooking.
- Therapy can also be a great option to cope with a parent’s cancer. Clinical psychologist Marianna Strongin has previously explained the importance of expressing your feelings in her advice column for SurvivorNet. She says not talking about something we’re afraid of or worried about can cause our body to feel anxious or unregulated.
- Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease that is difficult to detect because symptoms – including jaundice and weight loss – typically present at a later stage in the cancer’s development.
Michelle Zauner, best known as a writer and musician in pop band Japanese Breakfast, was just 25 when her mother, Chongmi, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and lost her battle with the disease.Read More
Thus, her memoir Crying in H Mart came to be. And throughout its pages, Michelle Zauner, 32, shares the story of exploring her identity and moving forward after her mother’s passing.
“Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I’m colliding with a wall that won’t give,” Michelle Zauner wrote in Crying in H Mart. “There’s no escape, just a hard surface that I keep ramming into over and over, a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again.”
More specifically, the book also shares how the aisles of a Korean-owned grocery store chain, H Mart, became a place of salvation for her during – and after – her mother’s cancer journey.
“Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about my mom losing her hair, or my mom losing weight; I was thinking about us in Korea eating patsingsu – shaved ice with sweet red beans – and it was like a parting of a cloud, a mental cloud,” she said in the interview.
Her mother made really good kimchi jjigae, for example, which Zuner describes as “the chicken soup of Korean culture.” So, learning this recipe, among others, was a way for her to keep her mother’s memory alive.
“When I think of, like, Korean food and Korean comfort cooking and my mom’s cooking, [kimchi jjigae] was one of the main dishes that I always think of, and was one of the most important things for me to learn how to make on my own because it was something that I really, really missed eating,” Zauner said. “To scour memory and relive and see and smell and taste and hear all of those things again, it’s kind of the closest that you can get to resuscitating someone.”
Coping with a Parent’s Cancer Diagnosis
Unfortunately, there are many others who, like Zauner, have had to watch a parent battle cancer. Singer-songwriter Jazmine Sullivan, for instance, has been open about her mother’s breast cancer battle. In fact, when her album Heaux Tales won the BET Award for album of the year earlier this year, she brought her mom onstage to talk about how much it meant to have her mom by her side that night.
“Two years ago we would’ve never expected to be here,” Jazmine said at the event. “My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. We didn’t see any of this happening but God has been so faithful to us. My mom is now in remission. This is my prize, this is my gift – it means more to me than anything that she’s here with me.”
Beyond being open about her mother’s cancer battle, Sullivan has also shared that she sought help after her mom’s cancer diagnosis. And she’s a great example of why it’s important to still put your mental health first in the wake of life-altering news like a parent’s cancer diagnosis. After all, you can’t be the best, healthiest version of yourself for your loved one fighting cancer if you don’t attend to your own needs too. And some people find the help they need through therapy.
“Breast cancer changes everything about your life. I’ve actually started seeing a therapist and I’m taking care of my mental health because that’s something that you just need to kind of figure out,” she previously told Yahoo Life. “I’ve been looking up so much since [starting] therapy and getting that pain and everything that I went through out.”
Licensed clinical psychologist Marianna Strongin has previously explained the importance of expressing your feelings in her advice column for SurvivorNet.
“Talking about difficult things does not cause more anxiety,” she said. “It is NOT talking about the very thing that we are all afraid or worried about that causes our body to feel dysregulated (unable to manage emotional responses or keep them within an acceptable range of typical emotional reactions) and anxious.”
Addressing people with sick parents, Dr. Strongin says, “I encourage you to talk about your feelings with your immediate family as well as your parents.”
Understanding Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease that is difficult to detect because symptoms – including jaundice and weight loss – typically present at a later stage in the cancer’s development. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Anirban Maitra, the co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shot at MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains what he typically sees when patients develop this disease.
“Because the pancreas is inside the abdomen often doesn’t have symptoms that would tell you that something is wrong with your pancreas,” he says. “By the time individuals walk into the clinic with symptoms like jaundice, weight loss, back pain or diabetes, it’s often very late in the stage of the disease.”
Parents, siblings and children of someone with pancreatic cancer are considered high risk for developing the disease because they are first-degree relatives of the individual. PGVs (pathogenic germline variants) are changes in reproductive cells (sperm or egg) that become part of the DNA in the cells of the offspring. Germline variants are passed from parents to their children, and are associated with increased risks of several cancer types, including pancreatic, ovarian and breast cancers. Germline mutations in ATM, BRCA1, BRCA2, CKDN2A, PALB2, PRSS1, STK11 and TP53 are associated with increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
Jessica Everett, a genetic counselor at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, encourages people in this category to look into possible screening options.
“If you’re concerned about pancreatic cancer in your family, start by talking to a genetic counselor to learn more about your risk and what options you have,” Everett said.