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Tiffini Joseph works long hours at night as a hospital nurse, while also raising four children with her loving husband. On top of her already busy life, she is a fierce lung cancer advocate and works hard to educate others on issues surrounding the disease. All in honor of her late mother and best friend, Janet.

One thing that Tiffini often shares with people about her mother’s lung cancer diagnosis, is that everyone’s first reaction when she shared the news was, “Well, did she smoke?” Tiffini found the question to be isolating and guilt-inducing for her mother. It felt as if they were implying that she was somehow responsible for her own cancer.

Though seemingly innocent, some questions can cut deep for someone fighting for their life and already battling the feelings of guilt, shame and isolation that come with cancer. Tiffany says they can even serve to trivialize the grief of loved ones, as if to say they have less reason to grieve over someone who contributed to their own illness.

The reality is Janet had smoked at one point, but she’d quit about 16 years before her cancer diagnosis. She had also worked with chemicals and fumes for years as a nail technician, and any number of things could have contributed to her cancer. Regardless of what she was exposed to, the bottom line is that the cancer was not her fault and she didn’t deserve to get sick because she smoked years before.

“She was young and active, and she sometimes had more energy than I did. She rarely got sick. She never missed work. She was a vegetarian. She was your typical health-conscious person. There was never any indication that she was sick.”

Facing It Together

Janet was only 56 when she was diagnosed with stage IIII lung cancer. She never developed lung problems or any other warning signs typically associated with cancer. In fact, her only symptom at the time of her diagnosis was a recurring pain in her side.

Tiffini recalls waiting nervously in the hospital room with her mother, when the doctor came in to inform them that the seemingly harmless pain in Janet’s side—the pain that she thought was a pulled muscle from lifting her granddaughter—was actually caused by lung cancer. The cancer was so progressive it had already metastasized in her bones.

Their entire family was devastated, but Tiffini and Janet immediately made a promise to each other in the midst of that first wave of shock, fear and disbelief. They agreed that they would allow themselves to melt into the couch for a week, to wallow, to cry and grieve together. After that, they would get up every morning, get dressed and do something. So, that’s what they did.

For 18 months, Tiffini accompanied Janet to every doctor’s appointment and oversaw every aspect of her care. Thankfully Janet had already been living with Tiffini at the time of her diagnosis, as she’d moved in after Tiffini’s father passed away.

To say they made the most out of Janet’s remaining months would be an understatement. Tiffini and her mother took a cruise together, their entire family went on a vacation to Disneyworld, and they joyfully celebrated birthdays and holidays.

However, the fun adventures and joyful times were still heavy with fear and sadness for Tiffini. She often snuck away by herself to cry. She didn’t want her mother to see how truly overwhelmed she was or to feel responsible for making her sad.

Toward the end of Janet’s journey, Tiffini’s brother, sister-in-law and niece were able to move in with the family for an entire month to be close and provide support. It was hard to see her mother receiving hospice services, but Tiffini is thankful that her background as a nurse allowed her to care for her mother and keep her comfortable at home.

Overcome with emotion, Tiffini described her mother’s last day with gentle reverence, “She passed away in my living room on April 9th, 2010.”

A Mother’s Legacy

But Janet’s story doesn’t end there. Months after her mother’s passing, a newsletter from Lung Cancer Alliance (now GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer) caught Tiffini’s eye when she was going through a stack of mail addressed to her mother. The newsletter featured opportunities to get involved during November in support of lung cancer awareness month, including hosting a Shine a Light on Lung Cancer event. Tiffini decided that would be a great way to honor her mother.

Thanks to her family and friends, Tiffini has been able to host seven of these annual gatherings. They’re not fundraisers, but rather a time for people to come together to listen to leading experts speak about lung cancer research and advancements, learn more about how to have meaningful discussions with medical professionals and legislators, hear from lung cancer survivors and caregivers, and connect as a local lung cancer community.

Tiffini has credited a large part of her strength and advocacy efforts to her loving family for their endless support:

“My brother, James, and I are all we have left of our parents. We hold each other up and take solace in knowing that together we remember our mom and do our best to honor her. My sister-in-law, Jessie, was more like a daughter to my mom and completely immersed herself in her care and helping all of us navigate our grief. She has been by my side every step of the way and I am forever grateful to have her in my life—from planning events to fundraising to helping make sure all of the grandkids know their Nana. My husband, Evans, supports all of my advocating endeavors and does his best to help the kids remember Nana. Family was absolutely everything to my mom and it would give her no greater joy than to know that I have an amazing support system and that her grandkids KNOW her.”

We want to encourage you to share Tiffini’s story and help her to continue raising lung cancer awareness!

Have you or someone you love been impacted by lung cancer? Please leave a comment below.

If you’d like to know more about caring for someone with terminal cancer, grieving the loss of a loved one, or supporting someone else who is going through these life seasons, keep an eye out for an upcoming post that shares Tiffini’s candid advice on these topics, titled, “Terminal Cancer and Life After Loss”.

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