ADVICE FROM SJ INWARDS, ON HER FATHER & GRANDMOTHER'S CANCER
What do you do for work? I work in television as an Associate Producer and Production Assistant. I also run an organization called We Have Power, which sends members from all over the country an email once per month with one volunteer + one donation opportunity to support organizations that fight to protect civil rights and combat climate change. We Have Power is founded on the idea that if we each commit to asmall action, together we can make a big impact.
You are incredible and I love your e-mails :). Tell us about your grandmother and father. What kind of cancer did they combat? I’ve had two close loved ones battle cancer; the first was my grandma, who was like another parent for me, and the second was my dad. My grandma’s name was Glenda, although I had called her “Gagee” when I was a little kid, and that name stuck around. My Grandma Gagee was diagnosed with breast cancer fairly shortly after I was born and was told she would only have months to live. She managed, however, to survive for 10 years while battling breast cancer. She lived with my family in our home the last few years of her life, which was amazing for me; I was able to form a very close bond with her.
My grandma was kind, poised, and had a lot of grace. She is always described to me by others as being a glamorous woman when she was living and raising my mom and her brother in a
small town in North Dakota. You can clearly see in photographs how she stands out with her forward fashion and hairstyles. But her life also contained hardships. She consistently battled severe depression throughout her life and went through a difficult divorce with my grandpa (rare in that time). These experiences informed her deep compassion, which is one of the most prominent traits I remember about her. Grandma Gagee died in November of 2001. I gave a eulogy at her funeral when I was 10 years old.
My dad is a physician himself, a hematologist, who works with cancer patients, about whom he’s incredibly passionate. He’s a funny guy who loves to crack Dad jokes—the more groans he can get out of me and my brother, the better. He also loves singing in his local choir and has run over a dozen marathons. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer when I was in high school. He went into remission, but it returned when I was in college. He is currently cancer free (knock on wood!)
So glad to hear your dad is cancer free! Do you recall the moment that you found out they were ill? What were those experiences like for you? For Grandma Gagee, it’s actually a strange, murky timeline to me. Since I was so little when she was first diagnosed, they didn’t explain it to me then, and as I got older I don’t ever remember anyone formally explaining to me that Gagee had cancer. Instead, I remember little hints that something was wrong, like the time in early elementary school I found my grandma’s “hair” (her wig) in the bathroom closet and assumed that something bad must be going on for someone to have to take their hair off. Although I don’t remember anyone explaining it to me, I somehow knew for the last few years that my grandma was dying. I remember I had a ritual: every night, I had to go downstairs to my grandma’s room, tell her that I loved her and I’d see her tomorrow. In my mind, if I said that I would see her tomorrow, that would guarantee it, and she wouldn’t be able to die overnight. The night she did die, I wasn’t able to say it to her, so you can imagine my childhood self felt responsible in some way. Now that I'm older, I realize that my mom was protecting me from seeing Gagee’s extreme suffering at the end when she didn’t allow me to see her that night.
For my dad, I remember I went into the hospital to see him after he had a pulmonary embolism (blot clot in the lung). It’s funny, I don’t remember exactly hearing the words that he had bladder cancer, or even remember who said them to me. You’d think that would be what stuck in my memory. But no, the thing I remember most is seeing my dad really looking “sick.” That’s something I feel is always a shock, to see a parent or someone you normally see as “strong” and “in charge” looking feeble and weak. I do remember when my parents told me that my dad’s cancer had returned. I was home from college for winter break and we were eating lunch at a sushi restaurant. It felt surreal, and I remember when I returned to college the next semester, I often questioned whether I should be home with my dad or still pursuing my education.
How did you first get involved with cancer advocacy / how do you identify
as a Cancer Advocate? I volunteer at Make a Wish Foundation in Los Angeles, and it has been incredibly rewarding. For those who are interested, I highly recommend checking out their website and considering getting involved. Of course at times it is difficult and evokes a lot of tough memories, but overall it is an inspiring and positive experience.
What has been/was a rewarding aspect of experiencing this journey with your parent? Because of our experience with my grandma’s sickness, my dad’s sickness, and a
chronic sickness that I dealt with for years, my family has learned to be very open
with communication. We all tell each other how much we love each other easily, and
I feel we are good at not taking each other for granted. Gratitude has been the
biggest reward from this experience.
Was is one piece of advice your loved one gave you that will always stay with you? My grandma (and my mom) always said, “Don’t worry until you have to,” particularly when it comes to chronic or terminal illness. My grandma battled cancer for 10 years during which there were so many ups and downs; it is easy to go crazy with all of the possibilities during that time. I dealt with life-threatening health problems for years in my late teens and early 20s. My mom relayed my grandma’s advice to me during that time, that you need to take everything one step at a time and don’t worry until you have to. Otherwise you’ll waste time and energy worrying about outcomes that haven’t occurred yet.
If there is one piece of advice you could give young women with an ill parent, what would that be? A lot of people in your support system will not know how to help you, although they want to. Be comfortable telling others how they can help. That may mean a variety of things: talking about your parent with you, distracting you from the situation,
leaving you alone, helping with chores or meals, whatever it may be. It can be
uncomfortable to be so forward about what you need during a difficult time, but
being vocal about it can be a huge help for everyone.
What keeps you inspired? Looking at mortality, especially at a young age, can be positive in many ways. You can feel very concretely that life is short; make the most of it! It is important that those you love and appreciate know how you feel, because you never know how
much time you have. Choosing to focus on gratitude rather than the fear resulting
from mortality has been empowering for me.
To connect with SJ you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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