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Honoring Mothers with Cancer on Mother's Day

If you're wondering how to honor a mother who has terminal cancer this Mother’s Day, we offer some suggestions for showing your love without bringing down the mood of the occasion.
Web Exclusives
Yvette Florio Lane

Cancer affects moms of all ages

Mothers of any age can, and do, get cancer. From the newest moms of the youngest babies, to great-grandmothers whose children are now senior citizens, cancer can strike anyone. Just as there is no age requirement for cancer, there is no age limit on motherhood and the mutual bonds of lifelong love and responsibility that grow from it.

As the second Sunday in May approaches, many families find they must now grapple with how to celebrate Mother’s Day while coping with mom’s cancer. Because Mother’s Day focuses on one of life’s most important and complicated relationships, it can be particularly filled with emotions and expectations. Observing this holiday with a mother who has terminal cancer may become especially challenging as time becomes more precious—and pressing―and is measured in weeks or days rather than years.

It may be difficult to find the right emphasis to put on Mother’s Day this year. Holidays and other special occasions can put a tremendous amount of pressure on us to perform in a certain way. We feel we must buy just the right gift, say just the right words, behave in just the right way. It may also be difficult now to express profound feelings; we may fear that we will dampen the festivities by making everyone sad or by reminding them of mom’s illness.

Perhaps your Mother’s Day celebrations in the past required only sending a card or flowers or planning a family brunch or dinner at a favorite restaurant. Chances are these gifts either are no longer appropriate for someone who has terminal cancer, or they no longer feel adequate. Illness, especially a terminal illness, brings change on us in ways that we can’t anticipate. You may want to use this Mother’s Day as a time to thank mom for all she has taught you, to let her know how she has influenced you to become the person you are today, and to honor her for the many gifts she has given you; and to do it in a way that will be moving without focusing on her illness or the uncertainty of the future.

Of course, a gift needn’t be costly to be priceless. Ideally, it should mean something to both the giver and the receiver—perhaps it reminds them of time spent together, a place they loved, a dream they shared. It recognizes, in some way, their shared journey through life. A gift that honors the unique attributes of the person being celebrated is welcome anytime.

Here are some suggestions for honoring mom in a heartfelt way this Mother’s Day. Some of these are simple gestures, while others are more involved projects that can be done over time, on your own, or, if possible, with mom or other family members. You may wish to start a project together on Mother’s Day and complete it later. When pursuing any of these ideas, remember, they are meant to be in honor of mom, with her needs and desires at the forefront. Follow her lead; if she’s tired or seems resistant, try again another day or suggest something else instead.

These ideas are meant to inspire your own—Share with us how you have honored someone with cancer in your life.

Honor Her Values and Beliefs

Donate to her favorite cause. Show mom how much you respect her commitment to the causes to which she’s been devoted. If mom has given her heart to a charity or organization over the years, now is the time to honor that generosity and continue her good work.

Keep the faith. Many faith traditions plan special services around Mother’s Day. If mom is up to it, accompany her to her place of worship for the day’s service. If appropriate, in advance of the service contribute flowers or ask for a prayer or special mention for mom. A donation to her place of worship in her honor would most likely be gratefully received.  

Ask for her advice. Have you always turned to mom for her wise counsel? You may worry about a time when she won’t be around to share her wisdom and experience. Set a date now to have a heart-to-heart conversation about some big issues. It can be informal, or you can refer to books or games to help guide the flow of discussion.  

Honor Her History and Family

Make a family photo album. There is something wonderful about poring over family pictures and sharing memories with loved ones. Make an album, a collage, or just gather a box of them—the idea is to spend time with mom reminiscing about vacations, holidays, graduations, birthdays—and all the special moments you’ve shared.

Reach out to her alma mater or alumni association. Many schools have started fundraising programs where alumni can purchase a brick paver with their name or class year engraved. Pay tribute to your mom’s education with this lasting gift.

Collect her recipes. If mom has been a fantastic chef, an expert baker, or an inspired mixologist whose recipes you will always cherish, collect her favorite recipes. Take note of her secret ingredients and holiday foods. Write down any stories that accompany the recipes.

Document your family history. Often it falls to 1 or 2 family members to be the official genealogists. If mom is the one who always knew whose side of the family great-aunt Gladys was from, it may be important to her to leave the care of the family tree with someone who will tend it well. Online tools such as Ancestry.com can help collect the information and keep it organized.

Make an audio record. Ask mom if she’d like to record some memories for future generations. Projects such as StoryCorps offer guidelines for preserving oral history for public use, but they are useful for personal use, too.

Honor Her Home and Community

Pamper her pet. Many people with cancer worry about the well-being of their pets near the end of their lives. Show mom’s precious pet some extra love with a special grooming or toy or treat. Help to ensure her fur baby will be cared for and loved even when she’s not around.

Make something for her or with her. If mom loved making art or crafting, start a small project together—or make something for her―a simple framed painting or needlework project to keep near her bedside will brighten her day.

Tend her garden. Water the plants, cut the grass, sweep the front walk. Mom may not have an actual garden, but keeping her outdoor space neat and tidy will bring a sense of order and is a thoughtful way to honor her. If mom is a gardener or plant lover, start a new flowerbed or vegetable garden with some of her favorites.

Plant a tree. Plant a tree (or have one planted) in mom’s honor. Several nonprofits such as The Arbor Day Foundation will plant a single tree or more in mom’s name. They will also send a personalized card with detailed information.

Clean the house. This is something that many people with cancer are afraid to ask for yet wish someone would do for them. You can honor mom and her home without her having to ask. Mop the floors, vacuum, clear out old mail and newspapers, and dust surfaces.

Entertain her friends. If mom enjoys having people around and has the energy, plan a small gathering with some of her friends. Keep it simple and light. Do all the work and let mom enjoy visiting with friends she may not see as much as she used to.        

Honor Her Spirit and Health

Have a meal together at home. This can be a very simple affair, especially if mom’s tastes and dietary needs have changed. Make something nostalgic from your childhood or hers, or order in something she would like. Turn off your phone and enjoy each other’s company.

Watch a movie or TV together. Maybe it’s an old classic, or something she hasn’t seen. It’s mom’s choice. Curl up with some snacks, dim the lights, and press “play.”

Write a letter. Cards are lovely, but often we let them speak for us. Write mom a letter that is from the heart. Make it a true surprise and purchase a pretty stamp and mail it to her.

Run a race. Many organizations hold Mother’s Day runs or walks as a way to celebrate mothers with cancer.

Gift her a massage. Oncology massage is a specialty form of massage therapy that requires extra training and certification. If massage is something mom enjoys, check with her healthcare provider and schedule a session.

Take care of yourself. Mom was likely your very first caregiver and the first person to worry about your health, so in honor of her, make your own health a priority. Many health organizations use Mother’s Day to remind women to schedule a mammogram. Or consider scheduling another screening, such as a colonoscopy.

A loving touch. Many people with cancer say the thing they wanted the most from their loved ones was to be touched. So, pamper mom with a gentle touch. Check with her first, and then lavish affection on her.

Sometimes the most basic and loving gifts are the greatest.

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Last modified: May 1, 2019

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