Rob Lowe Has Opened Up About The Emotional Turmoil Of Caring For His Cancer-Stricken Mom

Rob Lowe is a well-known actor who uses his fame to try and draw awareness to a particularly important issue. Indeed, Lowe was a carer for his mother when she suffered breast cancer. As a result, he experienced first-hand the extreme difficulties of that unpaid work. Now he speaks out frequently about the impact it had on him.

Lowe has appeared in many high-profile films and TV shows over the years. He started off as a Hollywood “Brat Pack” actor and teen idol, but he continued to work as an adult. TV audiences will most likely recognize him from The West Wing or Parks and Recreation. But arguably his most important role happened outside the world of acting.

The actor has also worked hard to bring awareness to the joint issues of cancer and caring. In fact, he’s an advocate for carers everywhere. And in 2000 he even became the first man named as spokesperson for Lee National Denim Day, which aims to raise money for research into breast cancer. For Lowe, it was an urgent cause. As well as his mother, his great-grandmother and grandmother all died of the disease.

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The star was always close to his mother, Barbara Hepler. “My mom was a teacher and she was a writer,” he told to Oprah.com in 2011. “She wrote every day of her life and she gave to me the gift of loving literature and loving words. I try to pass that on to my boys.” Lowe has two sons, Edward and John, with wife Sheryl Berkoff.

Lowe was in the latter part of his 30s when Barbara received her diagnosis. It was the turn of the millennium and the actor was appearing on the hugely popular TV show The West Wing. Indeed, between 1999 and 2003 he played White House deputy communications director Sam Seaborn.

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By the time Barbara was diagnosed, Lowe had already witnessed one parent battle cancer. His father, lawyer Chuck Lowe, was informed in 1990 that he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This came as a huge shock to the whole family, not least because they didn’t know much about the illness at all.

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Due in part to the lack of knowledge around the disease and its treatment, Chuck’s cancer battle was difficult. “It was really scary for us,” Lowe said in 2002 when launching a cancer awareness campaign with the company Amgen. “Although chemotherapy was the miracle that ultimately saved my father’s life, there was a side effect that we were unprepared for.”

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There were, in fact, complications with Chuck’s treatment. “Infection forced my dad to stop his chemotherapy. When he was told that his treatment had to stop, he didn’t know it was because of infection,” Lowe said. “Most cancer patients know about hair loss and nausea. But I want to educate patients about the risk of infection so they don’t have to go through what my dad did.”

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In 2004, Lowe spoke at the first Worldwide Lymphoma Awareness Day about his father’s diagnosis. “Like so many others around the world, we had never heard of this life-threatening condition,” he said. “By making more people aware of lymphoma, Worldwide Lymphoma Awareness Day hopes to save lives by increasing early diagnosis and suitable treatment.”

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In the end, Chuck survived his non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Tragically, though, the women in Lowe’s family are not so lucky. After Barbara’s grandmother and her own mother died of breast cancer, she herself was diagnosed with the disease. Shockingly, she was never offered a mammogram, which might have caught the cancer earlier.

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In 2015, Lowe wrote an article for CNN about the importance of talking to elderly parents about their care, despite the sensitivity of the subject. “The good news is, when it comes to thinking about how we age, taking action early significantly increases one’s odds for a better result and aging on our own terms,” he said.

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But of course, price is a factor. “Families need to plan ahead. The cost of long-term care can get extremely expensive. Especially nursing home care, [which has] median costs of $87,000 a year nationally,” Lowe said. “Even when friends or family provide ‘unpaid’ care, they often spend their own money and give up their personal time and even jobs to do so.”

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Even for Lowe, money and time were an issue when it came to caring for his mom. Barbara didn’t have a partner, so Lowe and his two brothers had to serve as her main carers. It was all the more difficult for the star as he was producing and starring in The Lyon’s Den at that point. As a result, he had to make some very hard decisions.

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Indeed, the television show was on its last legs and Lowe worried about all the people working on it with him. “If I took time off, the show would be canceled. I was responsible for 150 crew members, so I had to find a way to do both,” he told Newsweek in 2018. “My time was divided equally between trying to save the television show and trying to save my mother’s life.”

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The Lyon’s Den was eventually canceled. But, luckily, Lowe still had the resources to give his mother a high standard of care. “We’re also a family that has some means and we were able to bring in people as needed,” he explained in Newsweek. “For people who don’t have that, I can’t imagine how hard it must be.”

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Unfortunately, not many carers in America have the same luck as Lowe. According to Newsweek, over 43 million people in the country look after loved ones. They have to balance their caring duties with their paid work, which, naturally, can cause lots of stress and even mental health issues.

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There is work being done to tackle this issue, but it’s slow going so far. In September 2018, Congress created a council to look at solutions to the problem. And hospitals in 36 states also follow the CARE Act, which means healthcare professionals have to give medical training to unpaid carers in order to help them with their work.

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But Lowe is one of the people who thinks more work should be done. His Newsweek piece in 2018 was titled “Who Cares for the Carer?” In it he recommended ideas that would help the person being cared for. “It is critical, for example, for patients with a serious illness to have a third party with them at doctor’s appointments,” he said.

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Indeed, Lowe’s own experiences with caring had given him an inside look at some lesser-known problems, as well. “When I was helping to promote an awareness campaign for a new chemotherapy drug in 2002, I came across a startling number. Patients often retain just ten percent of the information they are being given,” he said.

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The star went on, “On top of that, there is the negotiation of medical coverage, which requires phone calls, weeding through paperwork and talking to insurance companies and doctors. I remember thinking, Jesus Christ, if I were sick and had to do this on my own? I don’t think I could get out of bed in the morning.”

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Lowe also spoke about how he had been there for his mother right up to the time she died. “When she passed in 2003, I felt that we’d had the talks we needed to have, that we’d spent the time together we needed to spend,” he wrote in Newsweek. “I have friends who’ve been through deaths of parents and they feel cheated; if only they’d been able to tell them how much they loved them, if only they’d done this or that.”

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In October 2016 Lowe told Dr Oz about his mother’s life and death. “I think about her every day. She was a writer. When I published my first book, I just wish she had been around. She would have loved that so much,” he said. “She was my first editor. I would always send whatever I wrote over to her.”

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Lowe then explained what it was like to be at his mother’s deathbed. “I was lucky enough to be with her when she passed,” he said. “You learn that thing that is almost clichéd and trite. But it really is like the lyric in that great Beatles song, ‘In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.’”

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The star, meanwhile, learned a lot from his mother’s passing. “I was very much struck with [how] all of our worries and all of our grand plans don’t mean a hill of beans at the end. It’s your memories and your love and your relationships and your human connections,” he said. “And it’s a great gift that she was able to give me in the end.”

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Lowe’s life has been so affected by cancer that in 2017 he personally comforted a fan who was dying of the disease. Alex Charpentier, who had loved the actor since his teen idol days, received a lung cancer diagnosis in 2016. As a result, a friend of hers reached out to the star to see if he could do anything to help in those last days.

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The star then sent a video to Charpentier in which he told her he was rooting for her. “How’re you, Alex? Word has gotten back to me that you’ve been a longtime supporter of mine and I can’t tell you what that means to me,” he said. “I’m sending prayers for you and thinking about you. You’re a fighter. I want to pat you on the back for that and hopefully give you some inspiration.”

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Tragically, however, Charpentier died just a few days after receiving the message from Lowe. But getting a video from her favorite actor galvanized her into recording one in response. “I can’t tell you what it means to me, the impact that you’ve made on my life,” she said. “I went from drooling over you as an adolescent teen, to respecting you as an actor and as a parent and as a human being.”

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Charpentier’s friend Chris Carter, the person who had initially contacted Lowe, later told People magazine about how the star’s video had affected the patient. “I think the miracle we wanted was for her to have a miraculous recovery. That’s not going to happen, but we got this. She was so happy last night. He helped create that for her,” she said.

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In January 2019 Lowe wrote another piece about his mother’s fight against cancer and his experience caring for her. And in it, he detailed the emotional difficulties that came with such a situation. “I was my sick mother’s caregiver, don’t underestimate the stress caregivers face,” was the title of the article, published in USA Today.

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Lowe kicked off his article with some statistics. “Right now, 40 million Americans are doing selfless work by serving as unpaid caregivers for a loved one,” he said. “About 25 percent of those caregivers are millennials, who often feel forced to choose between their careers and caring for their aging parents and grandparents.”

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The actor then explained what tended to happen in families where a person needs care. “There are many upsides to being cared for by devoted and well-trained family caregivers. [These include] a reduction in hospital re-admissions and a chance for families to bond during a difficult time. But the caregivers themselves often end up paying a high cost, both physically and financially, which is rarely discussed,” he said.

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Once more, Lowe reiterated how lucky he was to have money and resources to hand when his mother got sick. “Many caregivers aren’t as lucky as I was,” he said. “A recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving found that a third of caregivers in America do it alone, without any paid or unpaid help. And this uphill battle can lead to a domino effect of health and financial problems for the caregivers themselves.”

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Lowe also had more sobering facts on hand. “Over time, the stress of caregiving can lead to long-term health problems,” he noted. “A 2017 survey by Embracing Carers found that roughly half of unpaid U.S. caregivers suffer from feelings of depression (49 percent), sleep trouble (57 percent), weight fluctuation (46 percent) and other health complications. And that’s before stress related to money even enters the discussion.”

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Indeed, the sums of money involved are staggering. “MetLife recently found that caregivers are sacrificing almost $3 trillion a year in lost wages, pensions and Social Security benefits,” Lowe wrote. “That number doesn’t include the $7,000 on average that every caregiver personally spends each year to provide services for their loved one.”

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But even carers with money, like Lowe himself, don’t have it easy. “While some states and companies have improved their family leave policies, many caregivers still must use their own personal, vacation and sick time to care for their loved ones,” he wrote. “This means if the caregiver gets sick, he or she will just have to power through… Until they simply can’t.”

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The facts on display were indeed distressing. Lowe, however, also had some advice for people serving as carers. “From my own experience, I can assure you: The person you’re caring for needs you to be at your best. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have the energy or the means to provide the reliable care that your loved ones need,” he began.

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Lowe then suggested, “Talk about the challenges of caregiving with your family, friends and co-workers. The more aware we are of the realities of caregiving, the more action we can take to improve the experience. Plus, the people in your life might want to help you in your act of caregiving, but they might not know how to bring it up.”

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The star then concluded his list of helpful tips. “Finally, just be present. I know that caregiving can feel like an overwhelming array of details and responsibilities, prescriptions and pill charts, nonstop schedules and sleepless nights, which could make each day feel as if you’re scaling a mountain of stress.”

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“But,” the actor added, “time passes, and life does go on.” And then Lowe referenced his own personal loss. “When your caregiving experience ends, you’ll want to look back and see that you did the most important thing: Simply helping someone you love know that they weren’t alone,” he said.

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Life went on for Lowe as well, just as he had said it does. And in June 2019, while promoting his new show, Wild Bill, GQ magazine asked the actor how things were going. And they were going well. “I really, really love where I am today,” he said. “So truthfully, I wouldn’t want to change anything.”

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