Another person I love had their world rocked by cancer recently.
Sometimes this kind of news makes me feel sad, other times it sends me in to a whirl of what ifs and fear for my own little family. You know those days that the tears just keep coming? A kind of melancholy for myself and my husband Doug, and sadness for knowing that people I love are experiencing pain and heartache and it’s so shitting unfair.
Every weeping session has to end sometime. Then I’ve been left wondering what to do to help and feeling a bit useless that there isn’t much I can do. I’ve wanted to write about my experience of cancer, but didn’t want it to be another story of pain and heartache. Cancer gives us too many of those. I don’t know how it feels to have cancer. I do know how it feels to sit next to someone as they’re diagnosed with it. I know who and what helped when we felt desperately sad and scared. I guess I’m hoping that by writing about what helped us through a pretty dark time, something could be comforting or helpful to someone else.
I was fourteen weeks pregnant with our first baby when my husband was diagnosed with Stage 3 Medullary Thyroid Cancer. I almost didn’t go to the appointment – he’d been playing it down, we’d just told everyone I was pregnant so I was riding on a high of that and blissfully ignorant of much else going on except how clever and precious I was. On the day he was going, I mentioned the appointment to my boss who said perhaps I should go along, so I did; I thought we’d have lunch out and a little skive afterwards, that would be nice. Anyway, he couldn’t have cancer, he was 30, in excellent health (when we met he was a professional rugby player in Italy, no less), and we were about to have a baby for goodness sake. Except he did and as we sat opposite the consultant, I had the wind well and truly knocked out of my sails. I got through an entire box of tissues that the consultant handed me. My husband asked pertinent questions about what happens next while I sniffled unhelpfully next to him.
Diagnosis is exhausting; going over and over the details, especially as they change on a daily basis; the initial diagnosis, the results of tests, the surgeon’s thoughts on surgery, the plans for radiotherapy, more tests – each day presented brand new information, and in a language that was completely foreign. Reliving that to update people and then dealing with their reaction and grief is exhausting. A few weeks later Doug had aggressive surgery to remove the tumour and surrounding lymph nodes. It was a terrifying time and at this point we nominated a friend that passed information on to others, so they knew who to ask. It sounds like a bit of a formal set up, but dealing with all that well-meant emotion from other people was too much as we tried to get our own heads around it.
Something else that helped was learning to stay in the present; the consultant was brilliant at managing information – not making predictions or what happens if this bit doesn’t work, or what has happened to other people. I didn’t look up Doug’s cancer diagnosis online once. I still haven’t. Other people did and they tried to reassure me. Even if the stats are that 80% of people survive this type of cancer, that means 20 in 100 people don’t. Twenty dead people. One of which could be my handsome, strong, loyal, infuriatingly optimistic, drives-me-nuts husband. I knew I wouldn’t find those kind of stats at all reassuring. I’ve been told since that the stats were far less in his favour than that.
Some people say really daft things. I had one conversation when someone compared her boyfriend’s family dog dying to my husband being treated for cancer.
I do understand that not everyone is good in these situations and some people just freak a little. Other people assume that they can’t talk about anything else in front of you. They’ll start up about someone at work being a dick and then say ‘oh, that’s not really important when you’re going through so much’. For the love of god, I NEEDED something to cheer me up. Tell me about the latest pictures of Kim Kardashian’s big arse, or Bieber’s latest ‘gaff’ (he really is a twat). It’s all relative – I didn’t feel like other people weren’t allowed to be a bit miserable. I just didn’t want to hear how someone’s sister’s housemate’s cousin had the same cancer and is all fine now.
I noticed a 3 day coping-cycle. I’d be quite perky, focused on practical things like sorting washing and buying Doug pyjamas. He was diagnosed at 30 and didn’t own pyjamas. It was one of the first things my mum asked about when we got the date for his operation; ‘you don’t want him roaming the ward flashing other patients’. Lord love mums for that kind of practical thinking. I didn’t feel hard done by for the most part. Then on the third day I’d crash and be overcome with sadness and morbid thoughts. My imagination would take me somewhere I didn’t want to be, picturing my husband’s funeral, wanting to stand up and tell everyone what a wonderful person he was but unable to without falling apart. Those were the days that I had to turn to someone else for help.
We very quickly learned who would help us cope with the next months of surgery and treatment. The people that knew just what to say. I wanted to surround us with those people and shut everyone else out. I can remember calling a best friend of mine in Ireland, and as soon as she answered the phone I kind of squeaked and she knew it was me and exactly what to say. Another friend sent me a ‘healing’ necklace and it came with a message about finding strength. I wore that piece of tat around my neck for months, to every appointment and hospital visit, until it went green. It was the gesture that someone recognised that I would find it all exhausting at times, and from afar that was all my friend could do, and I loved her for thinking of me. A mate of Doug’s came and sat next to him in the hospital while he drifted in and out of sleep. They didn’t speak – the surgery was in his throat so he couldn’t – but his friend was just there. It makes him cry to talk about it. These were our friends that know us best, who could see us at our most raw and know what to do. I feel very proud when I think of them because I know they were struggling too. We didn’t need to see their fear or sadness – we needed their strength.
Cancer doesn’t end with death or an all-clear. Once it’s intruded on your life it will rear its head when you least expect it; through fear of it returning, or someone else getting it, or a delayed reaction to it. Even though death is inevitable for all of us, watching someone you love stare it in the face is life-changing, let alone actually going through it. Doug hasn’t been given the all-clear; he still has some cancer in his neck and for now it’s under control. This week he had his annual tests and the cancer has not grown. Some of the cells have actually died – the six weeks of radiotherapy he had nearly four years ago, finishing the night before I went in to labour with our first child (what are the chances?!) did it’s job. Due to some bad planning, rather than celebrating I was babysitting at a neighbour’s house the night Doug got the results and he was building flat pack furniture. How’s that for #7daysofreality? Perhaps it’s a reflection that we don’t want to make this the centre of our lives anymore.
So far each year we’ve had good news and he’s not needed further treatment yet. After any tests – however positive – we both crash with exhaustion and realise we’ve been running on adrenalin trying not to fear the worst while waiting for results. Our families hold their breath for a few days. It feels like something other people went through, until we have a reminder of how absolutely real it was and is.
It’s probably fairly obvious, but surrounding ourselves with loved ones that knew what to say, that didn’t feel awkward if someone was wailing and then laughing and making inappropriate jokes, and that didn’t judge when there were moments of anger or intense fear got us through. These are the ones that will remember the anniversaries, the tests coming up, the anxieties creeping in. They’ll somehow contact you just when you’re feeling yourself crash, even four years later. They’ll know when you need distraction, when you want to talk about it, when something else might trigger sad memories, or when you want one of those hugs that goes on for as long as you need it to.
Although I hate cancer, I’ve learned about the most important people in my life. I can draw on it when I need perspective and I know that life really is too short for some of the shit we worry about. Not always – if we all had perspective all the time, we’d all be walking around like we’re in a musical; if you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you’ll know this isn’t the case! Life goes on, my husband continues to leave his shoes in the middle of the kitchen and cannot smell that the goddamn bin needs changing. But it has shown me that the person I married six years ago has more strength, compassion and selfless kindness than anyone I know. Today I have perspective.
Thank you for reading. I’d love any comments, your own experiences, or thoughts on how you find your perspective if you want to share.
Pictures: Doug with a newborn Buster; Vintagefashionguild.org; flickr