Advice from Josh Smooha: Losing Your Mom to Cancer
Josh, so great to have you here! You're actually our first "SON" spotlight that we're doing. Can you tell us a little about you. What do you do for work? For fun?
I'm an aspiring TV comedy writer currently working as a writer's assistant in Los Angeles. I enjoy hanging out with my friends, the outdoors (camping/hiking/etc.) exploring new bars and restaurants with my friends, nerdy things like comic con, and traveling when I can.
Would love to hear a little bit about your mom. What kind of illness did she combat?
When I was ten years old my mom, Miriam Smooha, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer and beat it! I was still young enough to not really understand what cancer was or the severity of the diagnosis. I knew she had chemo and radiation and that she was really sick but the magnitude and her beating the damn thing was lost on me at the time. Unfortunately, ten years later, when I was twenty, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It had already spread a little, I believe it was stage 3. The problem with pancreatic cancer is they call it "the silent killer." By the time you have the typical symptoms of back pain and lethargy, the tumor as already amassed. She fought it for about six months, traveling 5 hours from my hometown to Miami every weekend to get treatment. Unfortunately, she passed away after six months of battling it.
I'm sorry to hear that, Josh. Is there a color, symbol, or quote that most reminds you of your mom?
For some reason rubies remind me of my mom. She had this one particular ring that she would always wear that had rubies in it. Also, the two cars she drove when I was growing up were also red cars so I think that slightly darker red just reminds me of her. Other than that, my mom liked dolphins a lot. It was like her chosen animal. She had tons of dolphin knick knacks so when I go to someone's house and they're also weirdly obsessed with one animal (hippos, elephants, or whatever) it just reminds me of my mom.
Do you recall the moment that you found out that your mom was sick? What was that experience like for you?
Now THAT was a heartbreaking experience. I was still in college at the time, so they had to call me. My dad told me to sit down and that he had some bad news and then he gave the phone to my mom. She was very upset, claiming that she had cancer. She was going to die. My dad had to butt in to answer the logistical questions of how they found on, the treatment plan, the symptoms, etc. My mom just kept crying telling me, as if there was no hope for a fight, that she was going to die and that she was sorry she wouldn't be able to meet her grandchildren or see me get married. I couldn't stop crying.
How did you first get involved with cancer advocacy / how do you identify as a Cancer Advocate (if applicable?)
I joined Relay for Life in College and became a team leader as well a constant donator.
What inspired you to become a writer Have you ever been able to combine your passions for writing + cancer advocacy? If so, in what capacity was the project, event, or situation?
Before wanting to be a TV comedy writer, I wanted to be a dramatic thriller writer - a vastly different genre and beast then my current career path. When my mom passed away, I felt very emotionally numb, so to pass the time I would watch a lot of sitcoms on Netflix: Scrubs, 30 Rock, Malcolm in the Middle, etc. When you lose someone, you can't necessarily binge watch Breaking Bad; the 30 minutes of lightheartedness is sometimes all you can swallow. I really believe that watching comedy helped heal me during that time in my life, which inspired me to pursue comedy writing myself. To help spread laughter -- even in the most challenging and trying times of life.
What was the most challenging aspect of seeing your mom with cancer?
The times that my mom mentally started giving up. She was very strong throughout her battle with chemo, but did have her moments where she would cry to me and apologize for the fact that she was going to not see me grow up. Those were the toughest moments.
What was a rewarding aspect of experiencing this journey with your mom?
I fully know my life purpose is to spread laughter and joy. It's hard to find your passion in life, but this situation put me on the path I was meant to be on.
Is there a time of year, date, or holiday that you find the most challenging? How do you handle this?
Honestly, the hardest parts of the year is around the winter holidays. My mom's passing was in the month of April and her birthday was in July, but those months are usually in full swing and full of events, work, life distractions, etc. Not to say that those dates aren't significant, but it's just sort of like a day of trouble and then I blink and it's over. I have a lot more trouble in the winter: I'm on holiday break, there is no work to distract me, all my friends are with their own families or on vacations, and Christmas marketing really hammers home the point that the holidays are all about family and meant to be spent together as a family. Couple that with Hanukah being my moms favorite holiday (we're Jewish) -- and it leads to a few weeks of introspectiveness, reflection, and missing her very deeply.
What book, film, or podcast, would you recommend to others? (Perhaps it relates to illness, or just inspired you in another way.)
Don't wallow, despite wanting to do nothing at all and feeling like all is lost, try and do little things everyday that distract you or even make you smile a bit (even if its just watching a stupid 30 minute TV show).
If there is one piece of advice you could give young people with an ill parent, what would that be? ALT: What advice do you have for daughters + sons around the world to grow up to be strong, independent adults?
Don't be afraid to ask for help or tell people when you are having trouble and need to talk to someone - or it will bottle up.
Long story short: After my mom passed away, I probably got about two months of friends checking in on me, making sure I was okay, asking about everything. But after those two months, people stopped asking about how I was coping. They went on with their lives. Here I was, six months into her passing, still miserable, but it seemed like no one was trying to comfort me.
It made me angry, like my friends no longer cared. But that's not the case. Most people feel uncomfortable because they don't know what to say or do. My best friends have told me that it "seemed like I was holding together" so they were afraid that if they brought up my mom then they would be "rocking the boat." They were afraid to bring up my mom cause they didn't want to make me sad. In reality, I was already sad and just wanted that to be acknowledged. Yet I didn't want to burden my friends with my feelings.
That said, my advice is don't feel guilty about "burdening" your friends. They are there to be your support system. If you are having a particularly tough day, tell someone about it. Vent to them. Don't try to "suck it up" and muscle through your emotions.
To connect with Josh, you can follow him on @Josh.Smooha or see his work at www.joshsmooha.com.