Cancer Grief

Watching A Parent Battle Cancer Is Hell On Earth Torture

Written by Lisa Ingrassia

Watching a parent battle cancer is hell on earth torture.  

For seven years I watched my hero, my best friend, my father bravely battle cancer.  Stage IV base of the tongue cancer.  His treatment options were limited to horrific, disfiguring surgery or very aggressive chemotherapy and radiation.  Our family opted for option B, chemotherapy and radiation.  

Little did we know.

After three long, difficult months of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy my father came home frail with a peg tube inserted in his belly for nutrition.  I remember the first time I saw the tube sticking out of his stomach, I almost fainted. He was patiently showing me how it worked and I nearly fainted, right on top of him and the tube.  I felt sick. I quickly excused myself and ran to the bathroom and sobbed.  I returned to the living room to find my father vomiting from his recent chemotherapy.  


And then I felt selfish.  

A grown woman crying because she can’t handle reality while my father, the patient was suffering.  I felt awful. Gently I rubbed my father’s neck and then cried for my mother to help us.  Once again I felt selfish as I stood there with my feet cemented into the ground watching my larger than life father wither away from cancer as my mother cared for him with dignity, love and eloquence.  

And this was only the beginning.

My dad had to learn how to eat all over again and began the tedious task of swallowing therapy. His first assignment, to eat a vanilla yogurt.  How difficult could that be?  A tiny little Yoplait yogurt.  It took him over two hours just to make a dent in it.  After each spoon he followed with exercises his therapist taught him.  

Slowly, each day progress was made.  

A few months post treatment and my dad was able to consume an entire yogurt orally under 2 hours. A few months after that and his peg tube was removed and he was eating orally.  Success!!! Well kinda because eating was never the same for my father again.  He was never able to eat a steak, and the traditional Italian Sunday pasta dinners were a thing of the past.  Pasta was too difficult to consume it would stick to his throat causing choking. So many foods he once enjoyed were a faded memory.  Regardless of what he was eating every single bite required him to sip water to ensure it was swallowed properly.  As time passed, more and more foods became difficult to swallow until he was handed a life sentence of surviving on a peg tube.  My father spent the last four years of his life without a morsel of food or an ounce of liquid consumed orally.  And with that came constant remarks from well meaning friends like, “Even just tiny bite?”  or  “I read online if he trys this new recipe he will be able to eat again.”  Because when someone is sick everyone is a doctor thanks to Google.

It was absolute torture to watch my larger than life father wither away before my eyes.

The real doctors informed us the aggressive radiation treatments that saved his life destroyed his epiglottis making eating impossible.  All of his food and liquids were entering his lungs causing aspiration pneumonia.  And to make that diagnosis even more depressing my dad had extensive nerve damage.  For the remaining four years of his life I watched my father scream in horrific pain, tremble, shake and cry for Jesus to help him.  

You have not felt a broken heart until you have heard your larger than life heroic father scream in pain.  

Watching a parent die is excruciating, watching a parent die who is also your best friend is hell on earth. For four years we searched for someone to help my father.  Someone with a miracle, someone to give him some sort of quality of life. I spoke to my father several times a day, visited at least once a week.  With each visit I witnessed him slowly dying.  As my dad’s sickness stole pieces of him, pieces of me were dying as well.  

Watching a parent die makes you angry, angry that your larger than life super hero was given a death sentence and that you were handed front row seats to helplessly watch. Other friends are out with their parents enjoying fancy dinners and I am watching my father survive on medically prescribed shakes, Gatorade and water.  So now you can understand why I roll my eyes at anyone selling fad shake diets on Facebook.  I can’t justify denying yourself certain foods when there are patients like my dad yearning for just one bite of food, just one sip of water all because cancer treatments stole your ability to eat.  See, when you’re battling a disease there is no time for fancy fad diets, you’re fighting to survive and spend just one more day with your family.  

Watching a parent die also makes you realize how sacred life is.  

I was given a gift, the opportunity to sit with my dad hold the strong hand that held mine my entire life.  My protector, my hero, my first love.  My best friend in the whole wide world.

Nothing was left unsaid.  My father died knowing how much I loved him and vice versa.  I am my father’s living, breathing legacy and I will spend the rest of my life telling others what a great man he was and the very brave battle he fought.  My father lost his battle due to his disease and complications with dysphagia. Head and neck cancer, and its aggressive treatment commonly results in difficulty swallowing, which stole my father’s quality of life and eventually stole him from a loving, kind family who wanted to badly to grow old with him.  

I will continue to strive to be an advocate for those impacted by swallowing disorders, trying to provide hope and improve their quality of life.   I will use my anger and create a positive impact for others, starting with my Paint It Forward event, an evening of painting and a celebration of my father’s legacy.   A portion of the proceeds from this event will be donated to the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders through the Albert J. Ingrassia Educational Fund.   A fund I established to help advance the treatment of swallowing disorders.  

Watching a parent die is a horrific, gut wrenching pain, but I can assure you my friend, there is nothing like death that ignites change.  

“You either get bitter or you get bitter.  It’s that simple. You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down.  The choice does not belong to fate, it belongs to you.”  Josh Shipp

About the author

Lisa Ingrassia

Lisa is the Director of Events at Zenith Marketing Group, an insurance brokerage firm located in Freehold, NJ. She is passionate about sharing her father’s journey with cancer and bringing attention the difficult path a caregiver must walk. She has written guest articles for the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders, The Mighty & Her View From Home. She is also a guest blogger for The Huffington Post. Fun fact: She’s obsessed with her Boston terrier Diesel and loves the color blue.


  • Thank you for sharing your story and the legacy of your Dad. I think that a person doesn’t really “get it” until they, too, have had to experience membership in this exclusive club. My heart hurts for you & your family. I, too, had a front row seat to my Mom’s battle with Uterine Cancer – 3 year battle of chasing a disease that kept rearing it’s ugly head over & over again. It’s favorite times to re-appear was Mother’s Day – every year for 3 years straight – thus not only robbing me of my Mother, my Best Friend, but also of any joy EVER on Mother’s Day again. Mom fought a valiant battle. I can’t say that I would have half of the bravery that she had, nor do I think I possess the fighting spirit of Mom, nor do I think I could hide my fear & terrors well as she did. Mom was only 75 when her suffering ended. She left behind a loving husband, a son that she adored, a devoted daughter and a heartbroken 11 year old grandson. Our lives were destroyed not only during the cancer journey – but in our loss and all of the things that will never be. In Mom’s case, she also had aggressive chemo and radiation, and it didn’t do a lick of good. Mom eventually succumbed to what the doctors said was probably a side effect of the aggressive treatments – however, in my mind, I question if the tumor just continued to grow, literally sucking the life from my Mom. You find yourself, later, when there is no turning back, questioning every decision, second guessing choices, wanting more time. That’s another “gift” the cancer legacy leaves you … you are robbed of your loved one, their dignity, your judgement and your good memories. It is all overshadowed by loss, grief, pain and anger.
    Oh, the anger. I find myself mad at the world. Mad that my Mom fought so hard and didn’t have any quality of life for the past 3 years. Mad that I had things to say to her & do with her and have had those moments taken away. Mad that cancer will always lurk in the back of my mind – what if I am next? How will I handle it? Mad that cancer stole my son’s grandmother – the miracle grandchild that she never thought she’d have – I waited too long to bring him into this world – and robbed her of time.
    So this cancer. I hate it. Not only did it make my Mom suffer so much and ultimately stole her from me, it stole my Dad, too. You see, I lost my Mom on 7/21/16 and just 33 days later, my Dad, who was lost without Mom, went to be with her. Cancer, in it’s own sick way, stole both of my parents and left me a broken mess.

    • I am so sorry for your losses. Cancer is awful and leave us feeling helpless. Sending you love and prayers as you walk your grief journey. I also questioned every single decision, thinking “what if.” Hugs to you XO

  • First off I’m very sorry for the loss of your father to this terrible disease. My mom was diagnosed with the exact same cancer 7 years ago this month.
    I was her sole caregiver. I totally understand what you and your mom went through. My mom chose the 35 radiation treatments and the 4 chemotherapy treatments. She also had to have 19 teeth extracted. She also had the peg tube to receive her liquid food. She had that for a year. Along with that she had terrible bone spurs from the radiation. She also had the aspiration pneumonia and was in ICU for a week. I had to make the decision at 31 years old to give her the shot to raise the white blood cell count to keep her fighting. I made the right choice.
    Fast forward a few years, she has had scares with biopsies that came back clean. But that is the biggest fear every cancer patient is it coming back. She cannot eat like she use too. She has limited choice of foods she eats. The radiation did so much damage to her throat, she constantly has to drinks water because her throat is so dry all the time.
    I am a lucky one my mom is a survivor of 7 years. But on a sad not I lost my father in law to lymphoma 2 years ago. It hurt just as bad as losing your on parent. God bless you and thank you for sharing your story!

    • God Bless your Mom and YOU! Caregiving is not an easy task. The radiation really changes how the patient eats, praying for the day a cure if found XO. Thank you for commenting