Until recently my least favourite C word was “Christmas” – bah humbug and all that jazz. I’ve never been a fan of the festive period, now that I’m older it reminds me of the loved ones I’ve lost, but just before the end of last year my dislike for Christmas was replaced by another C word: Cancer.
We’ve all heard of it, and sadly many of us know people who are or have been diagnosed with the disease – with one in two people now likely to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, we’re incredibly lucky if we haven’t had a brush with the C word. Until a couple of years ago I knew people who knew people who had cancer, but it had yet to make its impact on my life – the people I knew and loved were too busy having heart attacks and strokes and dropping dead in the street. Good times. At least that was until early last year when my friend, former colleague and all-round awesome woman died from ovarian cancer. It was a second recurrence for her and the disease was sadly determined it was going to get her. Her death was followed last summer by that of my cousin’s husband, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
They say that bad news comes in threes and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when my mum was diagnosed with bowel cancer in October. It came as a complete shock, as she hadn’t experienced any of the symptoms. She had been feeling a little uncomfortable, but thankfully took herself off to her GP for once, rather than seeing if the problem would go away on its own. The GP then referred her to a doctor at Colchester Hospital, who examined her and referred her to another of his clinics for a “procedure”. At least that’s what I was told by my protective ‘don’t share too much in case it worries anyone’ mother. It turns out that the procedure was in fact a biopsy, and that when he was examining my mum the doctor had discovered a “suspicious looking polyp.” So at six o clock on a Friday night in October we were told that she could have cancer, and our worlds came crashing down.
After the biopsy there was a whirlwind of action with appointments, worrying, scans, more worrying and finally the diagnosis. It took ten days before we received confirmation, and during that time I worked myself up into a frenzy. My dad died when I was eleven, I’m an only child and my mum is all I have *cue violin strings* so I was obviously distressed. One day I’d convince myself it was something other than cancer, so I’d be busy googling symptoms, other diseases and statistics on benign tumours; the next I’d be convinced it was terminal cancer, that there would be nothing the hospital could do. Meanwhile my mum, notorious for her selective hearing, had misheard the doctor and thought “the worst-case scenario is you have curable cancer” was actually “you have cancer”, so didn’t even consider any other possibility.
When my mum had received a telephone call asking her to go to the hospital the following day, we knew it was bad news and it was, albeit good bad news. Bowel cancer, not ideal, but early stage bowel cancer. It’s curable and the Oncology team are confident, but it’s not going to be an easy journey. The current bowel cancer treatment involves chemo-radiotherapy followed by an operation to remove the bowel and then some mop-up chemo. Because of the location of my mum’s tumour (she’s always been awkward) they’d have to remove the bowel completely, so she’d have to wear a permanent colostomy bag. It’s a daunting prospect for her, though I know that thousands of people have them and live normal lives. She’s also scared by the post-op chemo too – during her cancer treatment we spent a little time in the chemo department, and although it’s a lovely place with a positive atmosphere, it’s still a scary thought, and what she’s most concerned about is ending up in hospital during her treatment. She’s now on a “watch and wait” medical trial, where if the chemo-radiotherapy works, rather than automatically having an operation she would have chemo and be brought in for scans every few months. We’re currently waiting for her test results, so fingers crossed that works out in her favour.
It’s difficult to know how to react when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. On the one hand you’re devastated, shocked and saddened by the news; but then you also realise that you need to be strong and stay positive to encourage your loved one. I remember feeling numb the moment that the doctor and two nurses walked into the room (it turns out one was a trainee rather than a Macmillan nurse like I googled feared), but that was followed by a sense of relief when they informed my mum that the cancer was in its early stages. I was just glad the hospital team were positive, that they were convinced that was curable (and then the nerves kicked in and I started cracking inappropriate jokes in the hospital room, but that’s another story).
My mum’s chemo-radiotherapy surprisingly passed by in a flash – five weeks of daily radiotherapy sessions Monday to Friday, and chemo tablets twice a day. Thankfully they were a lower strength to “regular” chemo, so she didn’t get any of the harsher side effects. The radiotherapy went well – it became quite a social gathering meeting the same people each day – and my mum finally got to ring the bell on Christmas Eve. Since she’s finished treatment the side effects haven’t been pleasant due to the area they’ve been blasting, but they are slowly easing now. And despite spending a Friday night in A&E with suspected sepsis, thankfully she was eventually diagnosed with a water infection and bad cold and is on the mend once again.
We’re now playing the waiting game again to find out if the cancer treatment has worked, but no matter what happens from now on, the service my mum has received so far has been amazing. Staff at Colchester General Hospital couldn’t have been nicer if they tried (and they did try – there’s a battle going on between radiotherapy treatment rooms as to which team is the nicest), nothing has been too much trouble for them, and every niggle or pain or possible side effect from the treatment has been given immediate attention. We’re confident that whatever happens, even if she does have to have the full works with the surgery and post-operative chemo, she’ll receive the best care possible.
I’m naturally a negative person, always looking on the negative side nursing my half empty glass of water, so it’s been a steep learning curve trying to change my mindset and to stay positive – not just in front of my mum, but friends and family too. Over the past few months I’ve realised just how scared people are of cancer, even just the mere mention of it. The friends I’ve told who have all had their own experiences of cancer have been supportive and positive (the first thing my best friend asked me was whether my mum wanted her to shave her hair off in solidarity, though admittedly she was quite relieved when I said no). But there are those I’ve told who have been close to tears while mentally deciding what they’ll wear to the funeral. They forget the thousands of people who can survive this disease and do. Meanwhile my mum – someone who can’t leave the house without worrying she’s switched the iron off – has been so calm, strong and brave (she’d kill me for saying this, but it’s true) over these past few months. I know that one day there’s a possibility she’ll crash and fall apart, but she has a great support network around her as well as the hospital’s counselling service and Macmillan Cancer Support (who I can’t rate highly enough) if she needs anything.
For now we wait, but we’ll enjoy life while we do. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few snippets of advice for anyone going through something similar.
- DON’T GOOGLE ANYTHING! I did, I googled it all, trying to convince myself it was something other than cancer, but all I did was worry myself sick. It wasn’t until I was reading a message board post from a man who had a ten-inch tumour literally hanging out of his backside that I realised I’d gone too far and needed to switch off the computer.
- Do talk about how you’re feeling. No you’re not the one with cancer, but you need to be strong enough to support the person who is and it all affects you too. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your friends or family, Macmillan Cancer Support has a great telephone support service – I’ve used it so I know first-hand – and it’s free to call (0808 808 0000). Staff are on hand seven days a week to listen to how you’re coping – or at least trying to – with diagnosis, treatment and beyond. My mum’s hospital offers a similar service, and it’s definitely something we’ll be using.
- Laugh as much as you can. Cancer is scary enough and you need to try and stay as positive as you can. It’s also a good idea to try and take your mind off things, particularly while you’re waiting for diagnosis.
- Do something nice with your loved one when the treatment is over. My mum and I went out to dinner to celebrate the end of her chemo-radiotherapy, and we’ll go away when her cancer treatment is over. It’s something to look forward to during the tough days.
- Remember that all cancers are different. It doesn’t matter what stage the cancer is at, people have different experiences, whether it be treatments, side effects and prognosis. Don’t automatically presume the worst. Cancer can be curable.