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Advice from Stephanie Lafferty: Losing Both Parents to Cancer as a Teenager

I met this lovely woman on a plane to St. Louis. I was flying there to speak on a panel about losing a parent. She asked me about the conference, and it lead to this conversation. We exchanged e-mails and here we are! She is a lovely, hard-working woman and I am honored she is willing to share her story.

Hi Stephanie! Tell us a little about you. What do you do for work? For fun?

Currently I work at Arthur J. Gallagher as an Account Coordinator in the Employee Benefits Department. I l love the company I work for, which you don’t hear often. There isn’t lots of time for me to have my kind of fun as I am a single mom and spend a lot of time with my son and his sports. Baseball, Basketball and Golf which keeps me pretty busy running him around. I do like working out, hanging out in the driveway with friends while the kids play (I know sounds kind of lame in a hoosier kind of way, LOL) and of course TV time. Some people may judge, but I am a big reality junky.

Tell us about your parents. What kind of illnesses did they have? For how long?

Both of my parents were ill and died from cancer. I was 15 years old when my dad passed away, and 19 when my mom passed away.

My Dads name was John Hatton and he worked as a Sheet Metal Welder at Hussmann Corporation. He was a very hard worker and had a work ethic like no other. He would work 7 days a week sometimes and then would come home and still do work around the house/yard. He loved to BBQ, drink his beer and blast his Ghetto Blaster (that is what they were called back in the 80’s/90’s). My dad was in the Vietnam War and was there when Agent Orange was released. It was the Agent Orange that ultimately gave my dad a death sentence. He was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the late 70’s - early 80’s and fought this horrible disease off and on for many years. On the night of April 22, 1990 my dad could no longer fight the fight. That is when he gained his angel wings.

My Moms name was Julie Hatton and she was a stay-at-home-mom with 5 kids. She made sure the house was always clean, always had dinner ready, she was the 1st to get up and the last to go to bed. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, as there were always medical bills to pay, but my mom always made due. She would go without to make sure we didn’t have to. I remember she wore a pair of shoes that were 10+ years old. My mom loved to read books, drink her Pepsi and watch daytime soap operas. She wasn’t a really religious person, but she always read her bible. It wasn’t until after my dad died that she starting going to church. I believe it was early 1992 that she was diagnosed with Small Cell Lung Cancer, I was in my junior year going into my senior year of high school. At first she didn’t tell me the truth -- because she didn’t want it to affect my schooling -- but with my dad dying while I was in the 9th grade, I never really focused on school and only had good enough grades just to pass.

What color, symbol, or quote reminds you of your loved one? There isn’t a specific quote but my dad loved Ted Nugent and John Wayne. I remember hearing Ted Nugent on the radio and a John Wayne picture hung in the living room. There wasn’t any specific moment when I found out he was sick. My siblings and I were still too young, but as we got older, and he continued to was more of my dad is sick and may not make it. To be honest it was the norm for my family. We really didn’t know any different.

What was the most challenging aspect of seeing your parents combat cancer?

My senior year, I was told I had to pass every class to graduate and knowing I was the only in my family to graduate, I needed to make sure I passed. As I was finally on the honor roll and doing well, it was time for my mom to go to the hospital and stay a few days for treatment. I thought it was a benign tumor and she needed to stay so they could treat it and get it to shrink. It was then when the nurse asked my mom how long she has had cancer. I looked at the nurse and said my mom doesn’t have cancer. The nurse looked at me, I looked at my mom, and she was crying. It was kind of a blur....after that, I don’t even remember what was said. I just remember leaving and going to look at cars with my friend. That sounds horrible but I think I was in shock. Later, I talked to my mom and she asked me what I thought and I don’t remember my answer to tell you the truth. So time went on, and my grades started to slip, and I started to rebel and get into trouble at school. It was at that time that my mom told me the cancer was gone (little did I know it was not). So I got back to doing what I was suppose to do, and graduated in June of '93. After graduation, I found out the truth. My mom wasn’t cured...the cancer actually had gotten bigger and it was only a matter of time. Early morning February 10, 1994 my mom gained her angel wings.

If there is one piece of advice you could give young people with an ill parent, what would that be?

This journey that my family has been on has not been easy. The holidays are still the most difficult time for me. Each year, I handle this differently. Some years are easier, and some feel like they left just yesterday.

The advice that I would give to others is you have two choices. You can go the route of drugs and alcohol, which will only mask the pain (and never helps) -- or you can rise above this horrible deck of cards you were dealt. The best choice is to rise above, make your mother/father proud of you. Even though you are sad, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t live the live that you deserve. Respect yourself and your body. Your parents will be looking down on you and watching the wonderful choices you have made to become successful and have a family of your own. My brothers and sister chose drugs, and it was hard for them to come back. My other sister and I chose the route of rising above by going to a technical college, going to counseling and we both have our own home and family. Choose wise, choose peace and choose yourself. Praying for each and every one to have peace in what you are going through.

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