Cancer and Grieving. An orphan's perspective. Part 1

This topic is a little heavy so I don't recommend reading it lightly. If it's not your thing just enjoy these puppies and keep scrolling to the next entry

For a lot of average students and people our age death isn't really an a subject that constantly occupies our thoughts. Sure we ponder about religion and whether there is anything after we die, but usually death isn't something the average person thinks about on a day to day bases. However for a lot of us who have lost loved ones it can be hard not to think about death and the impact it has on the people close to us almost every day. This blog will talk a little bit about death and a little bit about cancer specifically, but mostly it will talk about grief, since grief is what we live with no matter what.

But before I talk about that in more detail I need to share some background with you. I am a 21 year old male from south eastern PA. I am a senior here at Penn State and I want to pursue a career in Neuropsychology specifically related to brain plasticity. I grew up with my mother and father and sister in Blue Bell and North Wales, PA. I did not have an easy life but I am not writing this for pity or sympathy. I am writing this so that people can understand what it is like for those of us who have dealt with tremendous loss and are still reeling from it.

For the most part I had a normal childhood. A house, friends, plenty of family and food and clothes to wear. I can never say I was ever without any of those things and that is always something I am thankful for. However there was one thing I always had, an irate overbearing father. 

I feared him and most times I hated him. Everything had to be absolute perfection in his eyes or I was doomed to be abused and screamed at. None of my friends ever wanted to come over and I was almost never allowed to do anything. While my friends went out after practice I had to come home and make sure everything was cleaned and chores were done before dinner. I hated practice but the more sports I was in the less time I had to be home. I usually sat in my room and hoped he never came across something to yell at me for. All that could be forgiven however if he only acted like a real dad and not just an anger machine. I didn't have a father I had a boss, principal, and drill sergeant all rolled into one. 

Do not be mistaken, I never went hungry and I always had a bed. I only wish to give you that small insight into my childhood in hopes you will understand what his death meant to me. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, had his kidney removed, went into remission, and it came back 18 months later. He died in December 2008 due to tumors in his lungs. I was 16 years old. For me at that time it was almost a blessing. I became a different man after that and finally experienced things I had put off for way too long. However my "happiness" was overshadowed by the tremendous depression this put my mother in. Something she never recovered from.

That's something I will talk about in Part 2. For now I'd like to use my Neuroscience background to give you a little insight into the power of childhood abuse. 

Brain Talk!

As somebody who was beat and smacked over the head on a daily bases I always wondered what that was doing to me in the long run. Much research has shown that survivors of childhood abuse are at significant risk for developing anxiety and depressive disorders in adulthood. Those with parents whose methods were characterized by rejection, lack of warmth, and physical harm showed a much higher increase in psychological disorders than children who's parents did not use these methods. You would think it would be obvious that calling your son a fucking idiot and slamming him into the floor for missing a spot after sweeping would be harmful to their development but for some of our parents that was not obvious. 

An article titled: "Neurobiological effects of childhood abuse: implications for the pathophysiology of depression and anxiety" by Penza, Heim, and Nemeroff states that "Stress endured early in life, during a time of high neuronal plasticity, may contribute to development of long-term HPA axis dysfunction." Dysfunction of this system causes extreme challenges to stress and hormone responses. However this was only in animals, what about humans?

This HPA dysfunction was also found in human subjects in other papers published by Heim in 2001. Further research showed that stress in adulthood can further compound these dysfunctions. This system also has toxic effects on hippocampal functioning, which is responsible for memory formation. Over-stimulation of this stress response system can atrophy the hippocampus leading to emotional regluation and memory problems. In other words, research show beating your children is bad for their brains.


McCloskey LA, Figueredo AJ, Koss MP (1995) The effects of systemic family violence on children's mental health. Child Dev 66: 1239-1261.

Ladd CO, Huot RL, Thrivikraman KV, Nemeroff CB, Meaney MJ, Plotsky PM (2000) Long term behavioral and neuroendocrine adaptations to adverse early experience. Prog Brain Res 122: 81-103.

Plotsky PM, Sánchez MM, Levine S (2001) Intrinsic and extrinsic factors modulating physiological coping systems during development. In: Broom DM (ed), Coping with challenge Dahlem University Press, Berlin, pp 169-196.

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