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A Brain Cancer Diagnosis Doesn’t Just Affect One Person

Angela Scalisi, Chair of the Board of Directors, Brain Cancer Canada
Angela Scalisi, Chair of the Board of Directors, Brain Cancer Canada

When my brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour, it had an immense effect on my entire family.

In 2013, when he was 26, my brother was diagnosed with an incurable, hard-to-treat malignant brain tumour.

It might as well have been a family diagnosis, especially for my parents, who quickly became consumed with fear and despair.

As the eldest child, I was born to be a responsible caregiver. So, rather than addressing my own brain health, I took responsibility for supporting my parents and brother through their struggles. I did this by acting as their pseudo-therapist, life coach, and punching bag, doing whatever I could to make them feel happy and hopeful. Because brain cancer research is severely underfunded, I even started a national charity to support innovative research.

In retrospect, focusing on easing my parents’ and brother’s pain quickly became a distraction from my own. I didn’t realize the toll it was taking on me. My husband and children were set aside because I convinced myself they didn’t need me as much as my parents and brother did. My hypochondria progressively worsened — a cough couldn’t just be a cough, surely it had to be leukemia. And the most concerning development was my fear of being happy. 

Can stress kill you?

In 2020, my father passed away from leukemia. In 2021, my mother had (and survived) a ruptured brain aneurysm. Prior to her aneurysm, my mother spent years medicating her fear with an abusive amount of cigarettes and alcohol. I always believed it was self-sabotage — she was determined to die before her son.

Over time, my parents’ pain became unbearable for me. Even worse was that nothing I did for them was helping.

I wonder if the debilitating stress of their son’s diagnosis was connected to their own. It’s hard not to think this. Either way, I’m sure it didn’t help.

I definitely feel it’s time that we as a society, and specifically the medical community, focus more on understanding the impact of stress and its connection to illness.

What I learned

It’s been 10 years since my brother’s diagnosis. This is what I’ve learned:

  • There’s nothing wrong with supporting the people you love, as long as you make time to take care of yourself, too.
  • It’s not your responsibility to fix people — that’s what professionals are for.
  • Your tolerance of abusive behaviour doesn’t equate to how much you love someone. Abuse of any kind should never be tolerated.
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first. You have a responsibility to make sure you’re OK beforeyou take care of everyone else.
  • Self-care isn’t selfish.
  • Having mental strength is both a privilege and a burden.
  • Being strong doesn’t mean that you aren’t scared.
  • It helps to find humour in dark moments.
  • When you don’t like your circumstances, be proactive.

The greatest burden of a diagnosis falls on the person who’s ill. However, it’s vital that we begin to recognize the toll it takes on entire families. Check in on your friends and family. In my experience, it was the little things that helped me get through difficult times: prepped meals, gifted massages, carpooling, and coffee or dinner with a friend. Good energy, listening without judgement, unconditional love, and genuine concern go a long way as well. You may not be able to resolve people’s circumstances, but you can help them manage their own health care.

Angela Scalisi is Chair of the Board of Directors of Brain Cancer Canada, a volunteer-based national charity raising funds for brain cancer research. Learn more at

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