Illness in the family


======= Date Modified 07 Dec 2011 10:47:46 =======

I am just looking for some advice on my current situation. I am a PhD student,7 months into my first year out of three. Things are going fine - I am really happy with my course, supervisors and subject. At the end of October we found out that my step-father (who is like a second father to me) is terminally ill with cancer. It was a horrible shock as he has always been fit and healthy and is only in his 60s. He has been told he is likely to have between 6-18 months to live depeing on how he does with chemotherapy. As you can imagine, the news has been devestating for my family, and especially my mother.

I have told my supervisors of the situation and they have been really understanding and said its not a problem for me to take time off or to get a suspension for weeks/months if I need it. At the moment my step-father is still doing pretty well, and we are all somewhat in denial. However, I know I have to face the reality that he may not be with us by the end of my PhD. I know there will be times when I need and want to be with my family in the coming months and years, and also to be able to support my mother when the worst does happen.

However, I am concerned that taking several months off might make it very difficult to get back into mt studies, and am thinking it might be better to suggest going part time. I was wondering if anyone else had been in a similar situation, and would be able to suggest what kind of arrangement might work best? Is it difficult to get back into your project after a big gap? Or is it better to take the time rather than trying to carry on part-time during a time that is very difficult emotionally?

I also don't want to abuse the system. I find it difficult to know how much time it is appropriate to take off as a PhD feels somewhere in between work and study to me. In a workplace you obviously wouldn't be able to take months off, but while studying at an undergraduate level you are given more consideration if you or a member of your immediate family is ill. At the moment I have been taking Thursday's off to attend chemo with my family, and am making up the time at weekends, which I feel ok about. But I think I would feel guilty for taking a lot of time off.


I'm so sorry to hear your sad news.
My mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer a month into my PhD and she passed away two months later. I use my work as a way of keeping going and having something to occupy me, but I do now wish that I had taken proper time off after she died.

Everybody's experience of situations like this is different so although I can suggest advice, you will have to decide what is best for you. Because your step-father may have 18 months left, I would say don't take a complete break from your PhD. Horrible as it is to think about the future, I think you are more likely to need to take a full break to deal with both emotional and practical stuff later.
If you live near your family, then you will be close by to help with things like hospital visits etc,so you could carry on with your work as well. So maybe going part-time would be an option.
Also, if it is possible talk to your step-father about what you are thinking of doing. It might be a positive thing for him if he knows that you are carrying on with your work. I'm sure he is very proud of you and might not want you to give it up, although temporarily, for his sake.
I hope some of this helps, and if you ever need to talk about this, having been through it, you can PM me as well.


======= Date Modified 07 Dec 2011 11:58:38 =======
I don't really have any advice for you, except to say that I have been in the same position. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the October of my first year, so just a month after I'd started. I live four hours away from my family, so I would go back most weekends to be with them.

I was full time, and funded, and I carried on. I was very distracted, of course, and though I got reading done and part of my lit chapter written, it was definitely not as high quality as I would have liked. My supervisor was understanding, but since I was uni funded, if I took time out I would not be paid, and we (husband and I) couldn't afford for him to support me totally.

My father died at the end of June in my first year. I moved back to be with my family for a month or so leading up to his death (and then three days after the funeral I was back at uni, graduating from my master's. That was a very weird day.). I felt guilty all round - guilty for not spending more time with him, guilty for not working more on my PhD, guilty for not doing better quality work when I *was* doing PhD work...

It's only now, over a year later, that I really feel like I'm back on track. In some ways I know that I should have taken time off after he died, even only a week, and not tried to do any work at all, but at the same time I think it helped to have something else to concentrate on, even if I didn't achieve very much! Depending on what kind of day I'm having, I feel anywhere between four and eight months behind where I planned to be, and I know that when my funding runs out things are going to be very tough in "real life".

So I suppose I do have some advice, really - do what you need to do, but don't try to do more than you can. When you have to be with your family, try to forget about the PhD. It'll still be there later. And try not to let the guilt take over. Things find a way of working out the way they're supposed to. (And also, people can surprise you - your stepfather may be there when you graduate.)


Firstly, i'm very sorry for your sad news. I don't have any particular advice for you, but just wanted to let you know that i am currently going through something similar - i found out about a month ago that my dad also has cancer, he's a very private man so is refusing to state whether it's terminal or not in categorical language. In fact, he's acting like nothing's wrong, but every time i speak to him i get more info and the outcome looks bleaker. When he first discussed it with me it was 1 slow-growing tumour that was inoperable but now it's multiple aggressive tumours throughout his body that are inoperable, so outlook isn't great i don't think.

I'm just over 1 year and 2 months into my PhD and at the moment, i've just been throwing myself into work, teaching and partying as a distraction, which is not necessarily the healthiest way to deal with things. But i guess i'm very much in denial, the reality really hasn't hit me. I mean, our parents are supposed to be invincible right?

Personally, i can't consider going part time as i need the full funding to live on. But I am lucky enough to be able to work remotely apart from when i'm running an experiment, so plan to share caring for my dad (he lives alone) with my bro so that i can work on writing/reading/planning/analysis etc at the start of the week from his place and run experiments and uni-based things towards the end of the week. At least, that's the plan. We'll see how it all turns out...

So, i have no particular advice for you. But if you want to PM me then we could talk in more detail as i guess we're going through fairly similar thoughts about guilt for not working if spending time with him, and guilt for not spending time with him because we're working. But equally, if that doesn't appeal then no worries. I have been advised to talk to the people at Macmillan which i am hoping to organise soon as apparently they give good support to family.


Also, I second FrogPrincess's comment about Macmillan - the Macmillan nurses and the Marie Curie nurses who were involved in my dad's care were wonderful. He was in a hospice which had MC nurses and they were all hugely supportive of all of us. Part of what they do is family support, and they've heard it all, so they're good people to talk to if you have things to talk about which you aren't comfortable discussing with family or friends.


======= Date Modified 11 Dec 2011 10:18:57 =======

I'm sorry your step-dad's ill. Cancer is no fun. Needlesstosay, a terminal illness is infintely worse.

I've not experienced what you're going through, but I'd like to share my own experience with cancer, thoughts about a PhD, and life in general.

I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma a month after I received my admission letter. This was in Dec 2010, and I was scheduled to begin in Sep 2011. I successfully finished treatment (chemo + radiation) in June 2011, and thought I could get on with life right away. But as September approached, I realised I was emotionally and psychologically not prepared. Cancer was a much bigger deal than I thought it'd be. I deferred my admission to Jan 2012. Right now, I still feel unprepared. I'm planning on pushing my admission back to Sept 2012. But to be honest, a part of me wonders if I'll ever start at all.

I too struggled with the practicalities of pushing my plans back. I received a scholarship, and they were quite sympathetic in allowing me to defer admission the first time round. By asking for a second deferment, I feel like I'm letting people down, even "abusing" the goodwill they've granted me. Some days I feel like I should just crack on with it even though I don't feel emotionally settled. Other days, I think starting a PhD when I'm not in the right frame of mind might be a recipe for disaster. There's a real tension there. How do you balance your needs and the expectations of others. I really want to do the right thing. You want to do the right thing too, I'm sure.

I've found there are two big obstacles to figuring out what the right thing to do is. First, it's pressure and expectations. You have your own expectations, and I'm sure there are expectations imposed upon you by others. Second, it's always difficult to amend current plans. Plans give you control over your future, and everyone likes certainty. We don't like to give up that control. You probably had everything all worked out and had a good idea of when you'd be done with your PhD, and what to do next. I too had a plan. In fact, because of the scholarship terms, I'd have the next 7 years planned out for me, which was great. Taking a break is a huge spanner in the works. But maybe new plans have to be made. I'm coming to realise life's a journey, and maybe I can plan't things that precisely. If I have to take a few months off, a year off, that's not ideal, but maybe I need it. And assuming I life a typical long life, what's 1 or 2 years of down time in larger scheme of things?

Above all, I'm coming to realise health, including emotional well-being, should come before everything else. I also realise you have to trust your own judgement. You know yourself best. If you feel like you need some time away, trust that feeling, and don't let other people tell you otherwise. It's your life, you know what you need.

If you need to re-jig your priorities for the time being, do it. And don't feel bad about it. Spend time with your step-dad. The PhD can wait. I don't think you can plan things perfectly, but a good start is to figure out what your priorities are in the here and now, and act accordingly. With your priorities figured out, things will always fall into place naturally.

I also found talking to a counselor helpful. Sometimes we just need help in building ourselves up, and trusting our own instincts.

I wish you and your family well. Take care!


Thank you so much to all of you for your kind replies. I'm sorry I have taken so long - life has been a bit hectic in a number of ways recently! I'm also really sorry to read of other people in similar positions, although of course I'm grateful for your advice. I think you've all made it really clear to me that its important to go with how you feel. Some days I may feel like working to take my mind off things, and to be doing something positive, and other days I made just really feel like going home to give my step-dad a hug, and that's fine too. I am really fortunate that my supervisors are very understanding, and I only live 2 hours from home, so I can even pop back for evenings.

I've been having a think about my priorities, and while my PhD means so much to me, my family will always be the most important thing to me. Just realising than and clarifying it in my mind has made me feel more comfortable that things are okay at the moment, but if I feel the need to take time off I will, and will do my best not to feel guilty. The other thing I really thought about was the fact that maybe I will take a bit of time off within the next few months. At the moment my step-dad is doing pretty well and is still able to enjoy a lot of things in life, and do some of the things he loves doing. I will have a talk with him about, but I think it might be important to do some of the things that we've planned on doing as a family while he is still able to do them. I'm not sure, but I'm thinking that enjoying life with him might be more important that going home if/when things get to the stage where he is asleep all day. Although of course, I will want to be there for my mum.

I'm trying to meet several deadlines before heading back for Christmas, but I will take up your offers to PM over the holidays!

Thanks again for your replies, they're really appreciated. Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.


I'm very sorry to hear about your step-father. I experienced a similar situation when my father was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Like your step-father, he was only in his 60s, very active, and rarely had a sick day. It was quite a shock. The two questions I asked myself were: What would help the family? and What would make me feel better about the situation? He wanted to die at home, in hospice care, so I ended up temporarily withdrawing from my PhD program, and left my job to work part-time in the evenings so that I could look after him. This arrangement allowed us to spend a lot of quality time together before he became too ill to speak. After he passed, it was still important to be available for my mother, so it took a while to regain momentum on my research. There were times when delving into my work was a good distraction from the grief, and times when I just needed to take a break and go for long walks in the woods.

I can't really give advice because everyone is different, but I do think that later on, even taking on tasks that your step-father usually attends to (such as paying bills online, car maintenance, etc.) will be a great help to your family. It's good to hear that your step-father is feeling okay right now, and that you can spend some time doing some of the things he has always wanted to do. (If it feels comfortable, you may want to tape record your conversations with him. It will be something nice to have in the future.) I hope this is somewhat helpful to you during a very difficult time. Just know that you'll get through it okay.

By the way, I distributed my manuscript this week, and will be defending (the equivalent of the VIVA) in February, so yes, people do finish in spite of these personal adversities.