How One Day at a Time Helped Me Cope with My Mom’s Cancer

One Day at a Time is a Netflix show produced by the legendary television pioneer Norman Lear. It’s a modern update on the classic 1980’s sitcom of the same title. The show focuses on the Alvarez family, a Cuban American family in Los Angeles, which includes mom Penelope (Justina Machado), her two kids, Elena and Alex, as well as her mother Lynda (Rita Moreno). The show deals with a number of contemporary topics, from racism, to LGBTQ acceptance, and immigration. For me, I related to Penelope’s challenges of coping with the challenges of being a single mom, and dealing with her post-military service issues of chronic pain and PTSD.

In 2015, my Mom was diagnosed with Stage 3 Liposarcoma Cancer. We were devastated. While trying to cope with this news, she also needed emergency surgery to remove her cancerous tumor (6.5 inches by 4 inches) and the cancer cells on the wall of her abdomen and reproductive organs. Not knowing if she’d be strong enough to live through the surgery, Mom asked me if I would be the legal guardian of my autistic brother, John. I said yes, but inside, I was terrified. Before Mom’s diagnosis, I was trying to balance college, co-caregiving John with Mom, pursuing a career in writing, and caring for my own fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. Now, I was John’s sole caregiver, in charge of running and keeping the house, and helping Grandma co-care-give for Mom post-surgery, on top of my own needs.

By not being able to handle all these massive changes so quickly, I suffered from frequent panic attacks. There were times I was afraid of leaving my bedroom, because of all the responsibilities waiting for me outside. I also became hesitant to answer my cell phone, terrified of getting another call about Mom getting worse, or her having to back to the emergency room. Thanks to the love and support of my family and friends, I was slowly starting to accept and cope with the situation. Though Mom is in remission, she still needs more surgery and is now dealing with health consequences from her cancer treatment. I still struggle with the fear of what life would be like if she died.

When One Day at a Time was first being advertised, as a Norman Lear project, I was excited to see Norman create a show around a Latino family. And with Rita Moreno being apart of the show, it made it even more intriguing. While watching the first episode I immediately connected to Penelope. Penelope faced many challenges similar to mine. She had to deal with the drastic change of becoming the primary, and at times, the sole provider for her family. It was her job to keep her home afloat, while helping, caring, and supporting her family. As rewarding as it can be to help others, it can also be overwhelming, especially if you’re doing it primarily own your own.

Due to Penelope’s military injuries, she at times she would struggle with her chronic shoulder pain (featured in episodes six and seven, of season one),
which would makes moving difficult. Mobility issues is something I also face on a regular basis with my Fibromyalgia. Though I don’t have PTSD, like Penelope, I can relate to the struggle she faces of trying to deal with life, while also trying to cope with the nightmares, panic, and the fear that can come from a life changing event.

In May of 2017, I attended a screening of One Day at a Time and a cast interview, in Los Angeles. Fortunately, I was one of the few chosen from the audience to ask a question. I was thrilled when both Rita and Justina answered my question. After the panel discussion was over, I had the opportunity to meet and tell both Justina and executive produced Mike Royce, how the show helped me cope with my own situation. Mike was very encouraging, while Justina gave me a big hug. Meeting them made my night!

During this time, I’ve learned that my panic comes from three things: one, the stress of taking on too many responsibilities and roles, two, from feeling that I can’t accomplish my personal goals, and three, my fear of what would happen to my family, especially John, if Mom died. At times these feelings are overwhelming. But like Penelope, I’m learning that I can’t do everything at once and that its okay. I need to take time to care things by priority, including self care. If I need help and its available, I need to accept it. And most importantly, I can’t be afraid of what might be, despite how terrifying something can potentially be. I simple have to take life One Day at a Time.

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