Members of Generation X are often referred to as the “sandwich generation” because we are caring for our children and our parents at the same time. And although that definition is very real for many of us, I recently navigated a different kind of caregiver sandwiching – managing the cancer diagnoses of my father and my husband at the same time.

Although it’s not a situation I would wish on any of my peers, I also realize that I’m not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, person facing this issue. To that end, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the experiences I’ve had over the past few years.

The Similarities Are Clear

Two years ago, my father (who was born in 1943) was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). He was already living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the time, and adding another diagnosis was, in his words, “very inconvenient.” He wasn’t remotely afraid of dying, particularly as my mother had already passed away, but he also didn’t want to have to take new medications or get used to a new routine, which was what annoyed him most about his diagnosis.

Not long thereafter, my husband (born in 1965) was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer called a carcinoid tumor. At 28 centimeters in size, it was exceptionally large and obstructed his breathing quite a bit. He had always been very healthy and was a marathon runner and avid cyclist, and as soon as he discovered the situation, he was ready to do whatever it took to fight the disease. He had surgery within weeks of diagnosis, and after having a 7-pound tumor removed from his chest, he started down the road to recovery. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and metastasized within a year, leaving him with a stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer diagnosis. Although it’s not curable, his oncologist told him that it would be manageable.

Despite the age gap, both my husband and my father handled their diagnoses as a practical matter – something to be dealt with that wouldn’t take over their lives. For me as, their wife and daughter, respectively, their matter-of-fact acceptance of their conditions certainly made things simpler, although coming to grips with the fact that they were both quite sick, despite looking and acting as they always had, was a learning curve.

Stark Differences Exist as Well

The acceptance phase of the diagnosis was just about the only similarity between my father and my husband. My dad, a former U.S. Marine, was extremely committed to maintaining his routine. Having to change his oxygen tank, replace the batteries in his motorized wheelchair, or visit yet another doctor (this time, an oncologist) was more than he wanted to manage.

He lived in an over-55 community that offered every possible amenity, including free rides to any medical appointments he had, but he felt more comfortable with me driving him wherever he needed to go. Whether it was a prescription pick-up, a grocery run, or a visit to one of his many doctors, I needed to be there on time (which actually meant at least 10 minutes early). I also needed to get him back to his building before the next meal was served in the dining room, or he would be irretrievably upset – usually at me. He had the financial resources to hire a caregiver, but frequently said, “Why would I do that when I’ve got you?”

The pressure I felt by his almost total dependence on me was overwhelming at times, but I never wanted to let him down, because I knew how much he was depending on me to lend some normalcy to what was clearly a scary time for him, even if he never said it.

My husband had almost the exact opposite reaction to his diagnosis of incurable cancer. He has been exceedingly independent, frequently reminding me that staying active will allow him to remain healthy longer and adding new hobbies to his plate almost every week. If I suggest the slightest bit of assistance – for instance, offering to pick up his prescriptions – he’ll remind me that he’s “got this.” Although his independence has been quite inspirational, it also makes it hard to gauge how he’s actually feeling at any given time.

Adapting to the New Normal

I have always taken care of my husband when he’s been sick, and it’s been an adjustment to essentially back off now that he’s facing his toughest diagnosis yet. However, I sincerely understand his perspective, which is that he wants to remain independent as long as possible. I don’t know whether it reflects his zest for life or his way of gauging his own limits, but his ability to continue on with a positive attitude has been inspirational and surprising.

My father passed away less than a year ago, and even on his last day, he was sticking to his all-consuming routine. He told me how to decorate his room in the hospice to look exactly as he’d kept his previous bedroom, and narrated his Wordle guesses to me so that I could ensure that his attempts were properly logged each day. I was glad that he was able to go out under his own terms, and was proud of my ability to remain a constant for him through the end.

None of us know what the future holds, but when I am at the point where I need caregiving, I hope that my children are able to say that I stayed true to my personality to the end, and I genuinely hope that they don’t have to cater to me – but I definitely want them to visit!

This article was originally published December 11, 2023 and most recently updated January 10, 2024.
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Torrey Kim, Health Writer:  
Natalie Vokes, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology: