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7 Things I Learned When My Mum Had Cancer

Think of it as a slow-motion rollercoaster.

Sian Butcher / BuzzFeed

1. It doesn't feel real.

The world of cancer doesn’t exist until you need it to. And then, like Diagon Alley, it appears. Caps made of soft bamboo cotton to keep your bald head warm at night. Shirts that are bought so they don’t catch at the port in your chest. Wig shops with sections for eyelashes, and special wigs that go under your hat. Hashtags on Twitter and closed Facebook groups. Cancer is there, everywhere – like seagulls circling your leftovers at the beach.

The day I found out my mum had cancer was also the day I got the keys to my first house. Standing in the empty front room, with a warm bottle of champagne and my stuff in boxes, I felt like I was awake inside a dream. Nothing felt real. And in the early days of the diagnosis, I woke up from a nightmare where my mum had cancer. I sat up in my bed, sweating, thinking, Oh, thank goodness, it was just a dream. She doesn’t have cancer. Except. Oh. She does.

The levels of chance that led up to my mum’s diagnosis were unbelievable. She had a mammogram a few months earlier that showed nothing. Then, while checking herself. she found it. It was checked. It was biopsied. It was checked again. It was cancer. Aggressive, out-of-the-blue cancer.

There’s no history of cancer on her side of the family. My dad’s side have a weird stomach bacteria that can turn cancerous (my auntie died from stomach cancer a few years ago and found this out; subsequently, her siblings who had the bacteria treated it with a short course of antibiotics), but my mum had nothing. She was not a smoker, not a heavy drinker, fit, healthy – just a normal person really.

But god, were we lucky. Lucky that my parents lived 10 minutes from a hospital where Mum would be treated. Lucky that they could afford for Mum to give up her job. Lucky that my younger brother had just been accepted into university and wouldn’t have his final-year exams disrupted. Lucky that I had a job that was flexible enough to allow me to spend time at home often. Lucky that she had caught it early. But it still felt like the world was ending every single day.

2. You don’t cry when you think you will.

Of course I cried when my dad told me of the diagnosis on the phone. Of course I cried when I locked myself into the bathroom at work, gulping and texting my friends to tell them my mum had cancer. But then there was nothing. I became a Cancer Admin. Mum was too frightened to google solutions to itchy skin or nausea, so I delved into the web. I lurked on forums and searched hashtags on Twitter. But I told nobody, apart from my close circle of friends. I didn’t update my Facebook with “guys, my mum is sick” or tweet “hashtag journo request – best chemo hacks?”. I was ashamed of my fear. Worried that if I told people my mum was sick, it was inviting the next step – telling people my mum had died.

I was also worried that we were too lucky to complain. Yes, my mum had a surprise form of aggressive breast cancer. But we should all be OK, right? It would be over in a year. Right? But it niggled at me that maybe it wouldn’t be. There was always a chance that the treatment wouldn’t work. Or that the cancer would have spread. I decided that keeping quiet was the best plan. Easier to contain my worry. Easier to control it.

It wasn’t until the airport that I cried. My granny had given me a cake slice as a housewarming present, and I put it in my carry-on luggage. It set the sensor off at the security desk and the lady went to confiscate it. I lost my shit. “You can’t! It’s just a cake slice! It was a present from my granny!” She pointed solemnly at the serrated edge of the knife, and then at the sign on the wall. I didn’t care. I just wanted something easy to happen that day. Something I didn’t have to think about. And I began to sob. “I’m sorry,” I said, “it’s not about the cake slice. My mum has cancer and I just went to her first chemo appointment with her, and, and, and...” The security lady looked awkward but kind. “Ah of course you’re worried. Look, we’ll go back and check your bag in for free.” Like a small child, I nodded and wiped my nose on my sleeve.

3. Cancer is boring.

The dips and troughs of treatment are so spaced out. Think of it as a slow-motion rollercoaster, where you prepare for the worst, endure it, and then are treated to twists and turns of nausea and side-effects, all while you climb up the hill again. And it lasts for a year. The goodwill and interest shown around the first flush of diagnosis and chemo withered slightly, and I found it difficult to engage people in the saga – yes, she’s still got cancer, yes, she’s still bald. Life went on around us, while we were stuck in amber, like that mosquito from Jurassic Park. And when I say “us”, I mean it. Sure, my mother was the person that was being treated, but cancer affected our whole family, from the list of chores my younger brother had to take care of, to my dad delving into the bioscience of chemotherapy, to my other brother driving her around to appointments. Mum was the one who actually had something to do: the doctors, the counselling, the surgeries. Cancer just happened to the rest of us. From the outside I could see what my mum was going through, and I had no power to stop it, but it still hurt for me.

4. Cancer is kind of funny too, though.

There’s a kind of bodyshock horror in the way treatment affects your body. On the day I took my mum wig shopping, I sent her the link from Les Mis where Fantine loses her hair “as inspo”. When she finally went fully bald, she would come home and snatch her wig off and scratch her scalp with pleasure. That’s when I sent her the link from The Witches. There’s an element of intrigue to seeing what will happen next. Yeah, we all knew that chemo causes you to lose your hair. But like, that means everywhere. Lying on my mum’s lap on the sofa, I realised I could see all the way up her nose. All her nose hair was gone. Who knew?

5. You feel useless and guilty.

I spent a long time hating how I had abandoned the thought of studying medicine in university. I’d done all my science A-levels, but chose languages instead. What a stupid little bitch I was, I thought. I could have been helping now, instead of writing lists about pizza products. I could have consulted on the treatment plan. I could have had contacts in this hospital who could have swung my mum a nicer room.

I would read other people’s accounts of breast cancer with a lurch. I’d try to recall the names of the drugs my mum had, the IVs I’d seen her hooked up to in the hospital. But the names stayed fuzzy in my brain, and I didn’t want to stress her out by asking. She was so tired, and cranky, and sad. But when mum’s eyelashes fell out, I knew which waterproof eyeliner would be best for lining her eyes (Maybelline fyi). And when her skin flared up during radiotherapy, I knew that a (clean!!) sock full of oatmeal in the bath would soothe it. And even if I had studied medicine, what was I going to do – learn how to cure cancer?

6. You feel so scared.

Even in my phone I couldn’t commit to what had happened. An old calendar note says "call Jenny"– it was to book Mum’s head shaving appointment. I was worried that if I thought about cancer too much it would touch me, touch my mum – and make us properly cancer-y. She wasn’t one of them, with their bald eggy heads and their puffy steroid jawlines and their brave soft cotton caps, styled chicly with a brooch. Couldn’t the doctors see that? That this was *my mum*. Some things were too hard to say. Or to put into words. Instead, it was a WhatsApp photo of a chunk of hair in the sink.

My brain was whirring endlessly with worry, but nothing ever seemed to change. We glitched our way through the year, looping slowly on the same scenes. We’d get ready to go into a chemo session – I’d have the day booked off work, a snack pack full of healthy snacks, and a charged iPad – only to find that mum’s white blood cells were too low. We’d have to come back next week.

But we settled in, and as she looked more and more sick (but was on her way to getting better, as that meant the treatment was working), I realised that there would be other visitors to this ward who would see us and fear us. Other people who were worried about our cancer catching. We were cancer-y now, too. We knew about ports and infusions and blocking veins. We got better at wig-spotting in the real world, and cancer storylines on TV and films became painfully real. I became more compassionate towards other people who’d had illness in their family. And I stopped giving a fuck about what people thought when they saw us.

7. You’re allowed to feel however you feel.

I’m finding it easier now to address my feelings, now that we’re done. Even though we finally got the all-clear last week, there’s still two years before it’s properly off the table. And there’s still a part of me that feels like, Well, it didn’t happen to you, did it? You’re fine. This isn’t your story to tell. I try each day to push back against that feeling. To embrace the horror of this past year. And to be thankful for how lucky I am.

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