Things You Only Know If You Survived Cancer, But Your Mum Didn't
The Debrief: There's coping, and then there's 'coping' (saying you're fine, and then crying on the bathroom floor)
Two years ago, I had cancer. Eleven months later, my mum Elsa did too. It turned out that while I’d been coping with a cancer-prone thyroid, she’d been quietly and unknowingly developing lung cancer. Two weeks after her diagnosis, on the same day I had scans to reveal that my thyroid was now proudly cancer-free, she passed away.
Before my mum was ill, I’d thought myself to be a pro at the ol’ cancer situation. My treatments were going well, I was writing blogs about what was happening, and apart from feeling sorry for myself when my neck was cut open and stapled back together (twice), things were broadly okay. To be honest, I kind of felt like a cancer fraud. Shouldn’t this be harder? Shouldn’t I have had chemo, or lost my hair, or felt constant pain? ‘Cos, um, I didn’t. But that meant I was winning at cancer, right?
And then my mum was diagnosed, and suddenly it became hard. Now it wasn’t fun to tweet ridiculous stories of my experiences with ‘#cancerlols’, or talk about how fine I was. I wasn’t winning any more. And when she died, I knew that I had most certainly lost.
So what did I learn? Well…
Your friends won’t know what to say….
Let’s face it, you don’t expect cancer to happen to one of the twenty-something pals you went drinking with at uni a few years ago. At first my friends found it difficult to know what to say around me, but when they realised I was ok talking about it they really stepped up. I was invited out for coffees, lunches and dinners - I have literally never been as popular as when I had cancer.
If they found it difficult to relate before, it got harder when my mum died. Suddenly the texts got more serious, the jokes about ‘playing the cancer card’ to get free stuff stopped, and friends weren’t quite sure how to act around me. I suppose no one knew what to say because so few people our age have lost a parent, and even fewer have had cancer, let alone dealt with both at the same time. (And it’s not as if Clinton Cards have a section for ‘Sorry you had cancer and then your mum died but well done on not having cancer anymore’.)
...And sometimes, neither will you
Ask me about my cancer experience, and I’ll tell you anything you need to know. I’ll regale you with stories about the time I was radioactive for a bit, or how the nurses asked - with my dad in the room - if I’d prefer an injection in my arm or bum. (Arm! Obviously arm! That’s like asking a vegetarian, in front of a cow, if they’d prefer a steak or a carrot). I’ll happily gab on about cancer so much that part of you will start to wonder whether you’ve missed out on some mega-lols by not having it yourself.
But ask me about my mum, and there’s nothing for me to say. Because I can’t say it. I don’t trust myself to talk about her without welling up, and I rarely manage to get through a full sentence about her time in hospital without very quickly changing the conversation.
Emotions can cancel each other out
Finding out I didn’t have cancer anymore meant very little to me. I didn’t care. I appreciate it’s a big thing, and in any other circumstance of course being told you are most likely cancer-free after months of worry is massive. But I was told this at 10am, having just seen my mum die from the same illness at 3am that morning. The grief and shock swirling around my head were much, much stronger than any joy I could feel. What point was there in being happy, in celebrating my all-clear, if my mum wasn’t here to celebrate with me? Intellectually I knew I should be delighted, or at least just relieved my cancer was gone. But the scan, and my own illness, now seemed incredibly insignificant.
Essentially, the end of my cancer story was an anti-climax, as it happened mid-way through a much more important life event: the death of my mum.
You can find the funny. Kind of.
A month after my major treatments, my friends threw a surprise party for me. The whole concept of the shindig was to celebrate not having cancer any more, but they didn’t realise that technically, I still did. So this meant there was an odd moment when we realised we were basically having a party about cancer (a difficult theme to decorate for, I’m sure you’ll agree) but it was one of the best nights of my life- walking into a room full of my favourite people, with banners saying ‘FRIENDS LOVE BEX’ (an Arrested Development reference, in case you’re wondering) and cakes iced with ‘FUCK CANCER’ and ‘LOVE YOU BEX’…although they’d become squished so I misread them as ‘FUCK YOU BEX’. That was when I knew my friends ‘got’ it; what had happened was shit, but I was determined to get the fun out of the situation. Cancer wouldn’t have the last laugh on me.
Of course, that was harder when it came to my mum’s illness. But I decided to do the eulogy at her funeral and I made an effort to make it...well...funny. I’m not saying I performed a Morecambe and Wise sketch on the pulpit, but I did manage to squeeze in a story that meant I got to say the word ‘tits’ from the altar, in front of a very flustered vicar. As well as being brilliant and loving, my mum was hilarious (often unintentionally); why wouldn’t I want everyone to remember that?
Cancer is not the same for everyone
I was lucky. I’d been diagnosed relatively early (just a heads-up, guys; if you have a massive lump on your neck, get it checked out, yeah? Don’t wait for two months like I did, assuming maybe you’ve always had a massive Adam’s apple but you’ve just never noticed it before). Obviously for my mum it was a very short and painful illness, and sometimes it felt difficult to accept we’d both been dealing with the same beast. How could I have been fine while she wasn’t? Didn’t we have the same thing? Well, yes. But also, like next week’s lottery numbers or Justin Bieber’s behaviour, cancer is unpredictable.
There’s coping, and there’s ‘coping’
I don’t mean to brag, but I’m great at coping. I’m so pragmatic that when the doctor told me I had cancer I looked him dead in the eye and said ‘Yep. So what do we do next?’ The only thing I found incredibly difficult to deal with was the two weeks where, because of the radioiodine treatment I was having, I couldn’t eat cheese or chocolate. (Turns out there are NO GOOD MEALS if you take these ingredients away).
I’d become such an expert in Dealing With Things that when Mum was diagnosed, and we were told she’d have a year left, I tried to organise activities we could do together. But when it became obvious these things were never going to happen, my version of ‘coping’ became pretending to be fine in public and then sitting on the bathroom floor crying. I’ve since looked up the dictionary definition of ‘to cope’ and, curiously, weeping next to the toilet bowl isn’t listed.
Facebook can help
I had a thoroughly modern illness. I tweeted and facebooked my way through cancer, and I’m glad I did. I mean, I didn’t constantly update my status to ‘GUYZ CANCER IS HARD’ (pretty sure we’ve all got that memo already) but I used it to let friends and family know what was happening. Seriously, the most exhausting bit of having cancer was just the bloody admin of telling everybody. In fact I’d found it so useful that when my mum got ill I knew it would be a good way of spreading the word without, y’know, actually having to talk about it.
I’m not saying we should WhatsApp our way through grief, but sometimes it’s easier to copy and paste your news onto various social media than go through the process of calling everyone in your phonebook.
You still have problems…
…But having dealt with cancer, losing your mum, and a fortnight without chocolate, you know that whatever happens, you’ll be okay.
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