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My mom survived cancer, but anger is still eating her

A reader writes:

My mother came out of a year-long cancer odyssey in remission but obsessed with death and dying. She has not gone back to work and recently declared bankruptcy. Her illness has caused her serious emotional strain. Yet when I suggested she join a cancer survivors' group, she replied that I am the one who needs help and that I must have inherited my father's schizophrenia and lack of touch with reality.

My mother's hostility toward me predates her cancer, but now her demands have grown more extreme: I am supposed to call every day and visit her often, even though I work full time and it's a two-hour trip by transit each way. Meanwhile, my brother (he is 28, I am 30) lives close by and seems to encourage her view of me as "disrespectful." Both of them constantly ask my husband and me for money and become angry when I refuse (I am paying off my student loan so my husband and I can buy a house).

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I feel agitated every time I speak to them, yet guilty for wanting to cut off a cancer survivor who obviously is under stress.


Speaking from my own experience with a near-terminal illness, yes, survivors do wallow - for a while - obsessed with the thought that death may yet be right around the corner. Does having survived entitle anyone to a free pass? No.

Facing death is a life-distilling experience. It may change your priorities or bring out behaviours that you used to suppress, but you're still who you are. Basically, if you weren't a fairly nice person before, a brush with death isn't going to make you one ... not sustainably anyway.

So the question I see is not "Can you cut off your toxic mother now that she's survived cancer?" but "Would you have cut her off by now if she hadn't got cancer?" If the answer is yes, then that is the distillation of your shared life and keeping up the connection is simply an energy-wasting form of denial for both of you.

Say -or better yet put in writing: "I'm happy for your sake that you got a second chance at life. What you make of it is up to you, just as what I make of mine is up to me."

- Jayna Barnes, Calgary

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I suspect that a father with schizophrenia has profoundly damaged your family dynamic. You probably pulled away from your family long ago and have maintained a distance that, although comfortable for you, made them feel resentful and abandoned. Pain, worry and stress will erode one's character.

Your mother is a victim of a life gone horribly wrong and your brother refuses to grow up and resents your doing so. The issue here is not so much about the financial resources as the emotional ones. You can either afford the expense of giving your family money, or not. Your family is either in genuine need, or not. These are binary questions. The long-standing resentment, shame and guilt between you is the true crisis.

So make an adult decision. You could extend a genuine offer to meet your family in counselling. However, I suspect that none of you are willing to engage in that level of brutal honesty quite yet. Better to forgive your family and move on. Only see them when it suits you, and only in situations when the tension is going to be at its lowest. If you feel you have to help them financially, at the very least tolerate no disrespect at that time. Protect your life, first and foremost.

- Andrew Canning, Toronto


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Mom's stress appears to be expressing itself in anger, demands, accusations and fear of dying, among other reactions. She could do with cancer-survivor counselling, along with your compassionate support. You, too, could benefit from some stress counselling to relieve your agitation and the guilt trip being laid on you.

Don't fall for the "disrespectful" game; and do not try to explain yourself hoping that they'll understand. They won't. Be realistic in managing your own emotional and financial resources, but do not withhold your compassion. Stay in the present.

- B. George Blake, Oshawa


Gosh. Reading the sagacious responses above it's as if, in this fresh new decade, a blanket of Zen wisdom has settled itself across the nation instead of the pea-soup fog I recently experienced in Nova Scotia, or the full-bodied-ice-cream-headache-inducing -30 wind chill in Alberta. Alas, it seems that divine spirit of wisdom and generosity has touched everyone of late but your mother and brother.

Jayna's point is solid - it sounds like the cancer scare has very little to do with how your mother treats you. We all have people in our lives whose mission it is to make us feel less than we are -people who are unhappy and who view the relative happiness of those close to them as something unfairly granted and thereby worthy of punishment.

You see, it's not that you have worked hard at building a productive life and healthy relationships, it's that you "Don't care about anyone except yourself" and are "disrespectful."

Ah, but here comes the Achilles heel of steadfast and decent folk like yourself: filial guilt. As George advises, don't fall for it. The unhappy people have homed in on this weakness of yours and they will work it, by God, like hyenas gnawing a chunk of wildebeest.

This is what you must keep in mind as you deal with your mother and brother: No matter how much compassion you have for your mother's situation, realize that she is working you, just as she did before the cancer.

If you choose to remain in contact, take Andrew's advice and "protect your life." That means establishing iron-clad boundaries: This is how often I will visit; this is how much money I can spare (if any); this is what I am willing to do. Keep in mind that these boundaries will be under constant assault. If she complains, be frank: Why should I visit at all if, every time I visit, you insult me and complain I don't visit enough?

Your brother? He's a 28-year-old grown-up who, what's more, did not give birth to you. Until he learns that respect goes both ways, he's on his own.

Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy, with another one currently in the oven.

Next week's question

My husband died last spring following a year-long illness that occurred after I announced I was divorcing him. We were married for 46 years. He had sex for 35 years with someone I knew. Click to read the rest of this question and share your advice.

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About the Author
Relationship Columnist

Lynn Coady writes the Group Therapy column for The Globe and Mail's Life section. She is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven, Saints of Big Harbour and Mean Boy. Her most recent novel, The Antagonist, will be released this September. She lives in Edmonton, where she is Senior Editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine. More

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