Why are we so bad at talking about family illness?

When Tim found out about her mum’s cancer, she felt paralysed. Here’s why we need to start a conversation about serious illnesses

When my mum first told me that doctors found tumours in her ovaries during a routine health check-up. The whole family was worried. But not overly so. She’s had mild complications before which were resolved. She’s had two healthy kids, my brother and me, since then.

When she found out that actually, hang on, they’re cancerous, my mind literally just went blank. Understandably, I was in a bit of shock. My mum isn’t old enough to die of cancer yet, I thought. Luckily, the cancer was pretty localised. She had surgery, then had to undergo seven months of chemotherapy. It was awful for her. I don’t think you can describe the pain and suffering the mind and body goes through.

And then the doctors found tumours in her brain.

When you’re confronted with the possibility of losing a loved one, everything you’ve ever wanted to say to them comes to you, all at once.  The floodgates opened, and I was experiencing extreme highs and lows every day whenever I remembered memories we’ve shared.

I was terrified of losing my mum.

I took two weeks off from work at Rife to fly back to Hong Kong last September. The aim was to give my family emotional support, though I felt like I was actually the one who needed that. I remember sitting outside my mum’s operation room in the hospital. Inside, she was having her brain opened up and the tumours cut out piece by piece. I remember how I couldn’t stop the worst-case scenarios that flashed through my mind. My imagination for horrible things has always been too active. It was like having a nightmare but I was awake.

My mum was fortunate enough to have a successful operation.

As the worst of my mum’s illness passed and she began to regain her health, I started talking to my friends about it. I realised that there are more people who have experiences with serious illness than I thought. It’s just that no one seems to really talk about it. I guess it’s not exactly the most cheerful conversation starter: “Hi my name is Tim and my mum’s got cancer, but it’s fine, but she’s going through chemo so not so fine. Oh and she’s actually got brain tumours as well…?” It’s also kind of hard to drop a bombshell like that in the middle of everyday chats. “Oh and how’re you Tim?” “My mum’s got cancer.” “…” It kind of dampens the mood you know?

Maybe it’s too morbid, maybe a lot of us are too afraid of approaching this topic, especially when it comes to our parents or guardians. Maybe the thought that the people who have taken care of us and watched us grow up will eventually leave us is too difficult to talk about. Perhaps we’ve taken their presence and strength for granted – so when something like an illness or disease hits, we’re forced to confront that inevitability. When we do, it becomes overwhelming. It’s an awfully isolating experience. We don’t know how to cope or deal with it, let alone know when’s a good time to bring it up.

I created this piece in the hope of conveying some of my darkest secrets and brightest wishes to my mum. More importantly, I want to spark a conversation that perhaps you’ve wanted to have but never knew how. Or maybe you’ve never thought about this before but now you might want to with talk to other people about it. Maybe there are things you’d like to tell that someone who’s taken care of you, and given you love and support all these years, but you never knew how to. I hope this film will inspire in you the courage and strength to face the problems that threaten your loved ones’ health, and that you’ll be able to find acceptance and hope in those moments of despair.

And for those of us who have never known anyone with these experiences, perhaps when someone you know finally opens up about this aspect of their lives, you can respond with compassion. Maybe show them this film. Maybe you can let them know it’s ok, we can’t avoid it, but we don’t have to despair alone.

When our loved ones grow old and lose their strength, when they can no longer support us. It’s our turn to support them, and each other.

After all, we’re all somebody’s child.

Watch Tim’s moving spoken word dance film about her mum’s illness in the video above, or here.

All photos by Elkie McCrimmon

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