Name: Drew Lawrence
Location: Currently: Denver, CO Previously: Charlottesville, VA
Parent’s Diagnosis: Glioblastoma Multiforme
Year of Diagnosis: 1999
How old were you then? 18
Blog: 29DaysUntil 29
Parenting with Cancer: How did your parents tell you about the diagnosis – if they told you at all?
Drew Lawrence: I was a senior in high school when my mother was diagnosed. I was at basketball practice and my dad walked into the gym. I could immediately tell that something was wrong. I rushed off the court and he simply looked at me and started to cry. It was the first time that I had ever seen my father cry.
I kept asking him what was wrong, but he couldn’t answer. I rushed over to my coach and said something to the effect of, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’ve got to go.” And I grabbed my stuff. When I got to my dad’s car, I continued to ask him what was wrong but he couldn’t speak and he couldn’t stop crying.
[A friend of my dad] walked out to the car and asked what was wrong. My dad simply responded by saying, “It’s Kathleen. She has a brain tumor.” He couldn’t look at me or tell me, but he was able to tell Pete.
My mom had a Glioblastoma Multiforme brain tumor. Stage IV. Four to six to 6 months to live. She made 17 months.
PWC: How did your life change, both day-to-day and in the longer term?
Drew: Wow, this is a tricky one. Day-to-day, at the time, my life was a daze. I was checked out. School became a joke. I’d come and go as I pleased. Basketball was the only thing keeping me grounded. I changed my entire college application plan. I was no longer looking at schools all over the country, but closer to home. The University of Virginia became my first choice, as it was where mom was being treated. I was fortunate enough to get in and was able to be at mom’s side during all of her treatments.
TELL ME THE TRUTH. I’m going to have to handle it at some point anyway.
In the longer term, my life has changed in a variety of ways. At first, those were bad ways – repression of my feelings, inability to talk about it, utilizing various other outlets to deal with the grief . (Let’s just say that I took full advantage of the college party scene). But, as I look back at it now, I realize that some of the long-term changes have been good ones. For example, I would see many of my friends and colleagues get all worked up and stressed out about things that I considered to me minor, things that wouldn’t matter in a few weeks or months. I gained a lot of perspective, and that perspective has served me well in the 11 years since God called mom home to Heaven.
PWC: What do you wish someone had told you about your mom’s cancer?
Drew: It’s not so much what I wish I had been told, but how I had been told. Kids aren’t stupid. Don’t talk down to me. I was 18, so it may be different for younger kids, but I didn’t want it sugarcoated. I wanted to know the bottom line. Instead I was drawing inferences based on what was said or wasn’t said. TELL ME THE TRUTH. I’m going to have to handle it at some point
PWC: What would you tell parents with cancer today about dealing with the disease when it comes to the kids?
The list is long, but I’ll do my best to keep it short:
- Tell the truth.
- Include them in the decision making process: listen to their input, answer their questions, then explain why certain decisions were made the way they were.
- Get them someone who’s not in the family to talk to – not necessarily a counselor. It could be a trusted family friend or a minister, or anyone, but don’t let them internalize all of it
- Don’t forget about them. I’ve learned that oftentimes the sick parent becomes the focus, as they should be, but a kid still needs their parents, so be present.
- Prepare them for the worst. We all want to hope for the best, but make sure they understand what could happen so that if that does happen they aren’t completely shattered.
PWC: Were you offered any emotional support at that time?
Drew: I’m sure I was, but I don’t remember it. At the time the Internet wasn’t as big as it is now, so resources were harder to find on our own. There were support groups for patients, and spouses, but none for kids. I had no way to find other kids who were going through the same thing. I got tired of my friends who had NO CONCEPT trying to ‘fix’ it – their intentions were good, and I appreciated them, but they had no clue. I desperately wanted someone to talk to who really did understand what I was dealing with.
PWC: What helped you through that time?
Drew: Basketball. It was my senior season. I’d worked my tail off to ensure that I was going to start. I poured everything I had into the game. It got my mind off of things. School wasn’t the answer, but I’d be sitting there reading and my mind would wonder. I couldn’t do that on the court, so I lived in the gym.
Once I got to college, I wasn’t playing anymore and I turned to other distractions — distractions that were negative and harmful to myself and to friendships. I’ve been able to mend the friendships and learn from the behavior, but I could have handled it better. Make sure that your kids have an outlet that is safe and productive. It doesn’t matter if that’s sports, or music, or theater, or science, or art, or anything, just make sure a safe and healthy outlet is always available.
PWC: What made it harder?
Drew: The sense of helplessness that I felt was the hardest part. I wanted to fix it. I couldn’t. My inability to talk to anyone that really understood was also very hard. I felt as though I was on an island and just had to figure it out on my own, so that’s what I did. I managed to do so, but not without some missteps along the way. I would have rather been on that island with other people, other kids, who really understood.
The sense of helplessness that I felt was the hardest part. I wanted to fix it. I couldn’t.
PWC: How did your other parent, siblings, other family members handle it?
Drew: It was different for different members of my family. My siblings are much older than I am and have their own families, so I didn’t see a lot of how they handled the situation. My dad shut down. He became much more emotional. He didn’t communicate. He didn’t talk anything out. He felt like he had to be stoic all the time, so in the end I felt like I ended up needing to take care of him and focused on that instead of taking care of myself.
PWC: What do you think is the worst thing someone can say or do for a child of a parent with cancer?
Drew: This one is easy: “I know what you’re going through. I know it’s hard, if you need anything I’m here, just let me know.” Look, unless you lost a parent to cancer YOU DO NOT HAVE A CLUE. I know that your intentions are good and that you mean well, but, seriously, don’t ever tell me you know what it’s like if you don’t.
For me, personally, the best thing was, “You’re going to be okay. It sucks, it hurts, you’re angry, and that’s all normal.”
PWC: Did anyone prepare you for end-of-life? If so, how? If not, why not?
Drew: Did someone tell me, “Your mom is probably going to die”’? Yes, I heard that. Did they explain that in any way, shape, or form? No. My parents prepped for it better than I did. I came to find out years later that mom and dad had discussed it at length.
Mom and I had one late-night conversation about the fact that she was probably going to die. It was rather morbid and involved planning out the details of her funeral, but it was cathartic for me. Thinking about that night still causes me to tear up, as it was the last mother/son conversation that we had that had such depth and significance. She prepared me for it by saying that she was not afraid of dying, that she loved me and was proud of me, and would always be watching over me. It was easier (though still impossible) for me to be at peace with it when I knew that she was at peace with her fate.
PWC: How did you process what had happened to your family, and how are you now?
The better question is why didn’t I process it at all. It took nearly a decade before I could openly discuss mom’s illness and death. I locked it up inside. It was in a nice little box and compartmentalized away from the rest of my life. I never took the box off of the shelf. I never dealt with it. But I finally realized that I needed to, and that’s what sparked my desire for me 29 Days Until 29
It took nearly a decade before I could openly discuss mom’s illness and death. I locked it up inside.
As far as how I’m doing now: I still miss my mom every single day. There’s been a lot that has happened in my life over the past three years that I wish she’d be around for, as I really could have used her advice and wisdom. A certain song will play or I’ll see a certain flower or recall a certain memory and it will give me pause, but I know she’s in a better place. I’m also in a better place, finally able to discuss what happened to me and to my mom.
PWC: Tell us about your trip and why you did it.
Drew: My trip took place in September of 2010 when JetBlue offered an All You Can Jet pass for $700. It enabled me to fly anywhere and everything that JetBlue flew for an entire month. As much as I wanted! I decided to use that opportunity to finally address that fact that my mom had died.
Cancer is the only thing that I’ve been able to think of that connects us all that isn’t required to live.
The trip started as a selfish thing, with me wanting to get better and handle some personal issues. But it evolved into so much more as I met and spoke with hundreds of inspiring patients, survivors, family members, and total strangers along the way. All of a sudden it wasn’t about me, but the people I was speaking with.
I started to receive emails from all over the country, from people that I’d never met, telling me things they hadn’t told anyone. Why? Because they’d seen my story on some news channel somewhere and felt a connection to me that they didn’t feel with anyone they knew because they didn’t think any of their friends understood. So they laid it all out there for me, in writing.
My trip changed my life for the better. It helped me to finally come to terms with my mom’s death and I was able to help other people deal with their situations along the way.
PWC: What do you mean by “replacing the negative”?
Drew: Everyone you know knows someone who has been affected by cancer. Anywhere you go, everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer. I don’t mean just as a survivor or victim, but a friend of a friend, or a friend’s parent, or a family member.
Cancer is an indiscriminate killer. Yes, there are certain factors that increase or decrease one’s risk of getting cancer. But, at the end of the day, cancer doesn’t care if you’re rich, poor, black, white, smart, stupid, Christian or Muslim. Cancer is the only thing that I’ve been able to think of that connects us all that isn’t required to live, such as our need for oxygen that connects us all.
As such, cancer presents itself as a pretty negative universal connection. The goal of my trip, and now the goal of my life in all aspects, is to replace that negative connection that I share with others through cancer with a positive experience. A positive connection can be as simple as a smile and a thank you, but it allows me to have something other than cancer as a connection to the people that I meet.