Overcoming cancer and substance abuse

For most families, battling cancer is one of the hardest things they’ll ever have to do. For Charlene Gallagher, it was made even harder when she found out her daughter was using drugs and alcohol during her treatment.

Charlene, a single mother of two daughters for many years, was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer when Kylee started grade 12. It was a devastating blow, following the year they’d had previously. Kylee’s uncle had been killed, and the teen had also witnessed her grandfather pass away.

As a reaction to the heartbreak of the recent deaths and her mother’s diagnosis, Kylee began hanging around a new group of friends who started pushing drugs and alcohol on her as a way to cope with her feelings.

“I was going to parties, and I was drinking. All my friends introduced me to different drugs saying ‘It will clear your brain and make you feel so much better,’” said Kylee. In reality, the 17-year-old was spiraling out of control.

“During that time everything was spinning, nothing was real life, it just felt like everything was a dream. And then when I was finally sober, everything felt ten times worse,” she said.

Eventually, Kylee’s older sister Coleen caught wind of Kylee’s issues and told their mother what was going on.

Charlene said that instead of being mad at Kylee for the drug use, she decided to fight with her and not against her.

“I just tried to find ways not to alienate her. I never really got angry. I just needed to make sure that she was going to be okay,” explained Charlene.

As such a close family, the Gallagher’s banded together to conquer Charlene’s cancer and Kylee’s issues with drugs and alcohol.

“From the minute I was diagnosed, my family really rallied around me. I never felt that I was ever alone, and for that, I never wanted Kylee to feel like she was ever alone,” said Charlene.

“Once I got diagnosed it was a fight or flight scenario, and I’m not a flight person, so it was a fight all the way.”

It wasn’t always an easy feat, especially with Kylee taking on the brunt of her mother’s sickness. While Charlene enabled her ‘fight mode’, 18-year-old Coleen turned to ‘flight’ and began dating an older man. Her mother said she wasn’t around as much as Kylee was to deal with the issues they were facing.

Kylee was also tasked with giving her mother regular injections for her cancer treatment because she had experience in health care. A job that took a severe toll on her.

“Looking back, I don’t think that I would have allowed it, but she was in the healthcare field and has such a caring and nursing mind,” said Charlene.

Still, the family stuck together, talking through Kylee’s emotions, her drug and alcohol use and Charlene’s battle.

Charlene remembers a time when she was going through chemo and wanted to skip her daughter’s grad meeting because she didn’t want to embarrass Kylee.

“When I went through chemo I had no hair, no eyelashes, I didn’t have fingernails. I was literally nothing,” said Charlene.

Very upset, Kylee insisted her mother went to the meeting, and because of that, she ended up receiving amazing support from people and staff at her school.

She credits her mother and sister as the people who ultimately got her through her period of drug use.

“They teamed up to help me out. I just went to school, came home, did my homework. I just wanted to work on myself and be with my mom and family,” said Kylee.

Her mother always managed to help coach her through her hard times with positive reinforcement as much as possible. “I would tell her you’re doing amazing, you’re wonderful, you’re beautiful, and if you end up with a criminal record you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do the rest of your life – and that’s helping the elderly,” said Charlene.

Now in remission, Charlene is more thankful than ever for family and is able to see her cancer in a positive light. “I think cancer really humbled me. I probably would have yelled and screamed at Kylee if she was going through the same thing,” she said.

The family is now heading into battle once again, with their grandfather recently diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. But they feel prepared to fight, as a family, like they always have.

“We’re going to go through this again as a family, and we’re going to be okay,” said Charlene. “Nothing will ever break our bond.”

Looking for help for your teen dealing with substance abuse? Check out these great resources: https://www.drugfreekidscanada.org/get-help/get-help-resources/

By Meaghan Willis