Become an empowered advocate. Try to go with your mother to her doctor's appointments if you can (if not, find another close family member or friend to go with her). Bring all her medications and other important items. Help her practice how she'll communicate important details to the doctors. Prepare a concise list of questions. If she is too shy or feeling too unwell to ask questions herself, be ready to take over and advocate for her to get the best care possible.
Ask her how she's doing. Many people don't know what to say to a patient with cancer. My mother's friends would see her losing her hair and becoming very thin. They would visit from time to time, but I never heard them ask her how she was doing. There were probably too afraid to ask, but you don't have to be. Let her know that you want to have open conversations about her health—that it's OK for her to tell you how she's feeling. If you live far away, schedule regular phone calls or Skype conversations. Sometimes, you will hear things that really surprise you. For example, I found out that my mother was really hating this one medication regimen and having terrible side effects, but she was doing it because she wanted to prove to us that she was strong.
Take care of yourself. It's easy to forget yourself in a stressful time like this. Remember that you won't be of any help to anyone if you are ill, and your mother will be even more worried if you become unwell. Get enough sleep. Don't forget to exercise. Figure out your own support system. This is an incredibly difficult time for you, too, and you will need to draw upon the support of your other family and friends. Throughout her treatment, there will be good times and bad times, so develop and solidify support systems that will benefit you both.
After eight years of fighting, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation, my mother lost her battle with cancer. I think about her every day. I miss her terribly, and wish she were there to walk me down the aisle at my wedding and to cheer when my sister received her college diploma.
Perhaps my most important lesson to other young women is to cherish the time you have together. A cancer diagnosis is a wakeup call that our time is limited. I feel fortunate that I had those eight additional years to spend with my mother, to really get to know her and talk with her. Her illness made me recognize medicine's limitations, and also made me appreciate the gift of life—and the irreplaceable bond between mother and daughter.
Leana S. Wen, M.D., is an Emergency Physician and Director of Patient-Centered Care Research at George Washington University. She is the author of the best-selling book, When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests. As the physician expert on WomensHealthMag.com, she will be contributing articles on how you can empower yourself to better health. Follow @DrLeanaWen.