Twelve years ago my mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer and told to make the most of the next six months. She was just shy of her 60th birthday and in cancer years this was considered to be young.
My husband and I had just celebrated our marriage with a big party on the Thames. My mother had been the life and soul and looked incredible. She certainly didn’t look like someone with just six months to live, but then again how do any of us know what that looks like?
There are not words to describe the way it feels when one of your immediate family is dealt such a cruel blow. It is a complete body punch as you are left reeling from the enormity of the news. You struggle to find the right words, how and why are the most obvious and the most immediate as you try to process the facts, followed by what next? Your heart and your brain fight it out for supremacy. It is a time to be strong and to offer support and encouragement in an effort to allay the fears of those around you but panic, fear and incoherence make you weak.
The news hit our family really hard of course. I am not exaggerating when I say my mother is the lynchpin of our family. My father’s career had taken him around the world for the majority of each year. My mother remained in the UK with us, believing a life of endless travelling was not the right upbringing for my sister and I. As a result she held the fort at home, looking after us alone whilst managing a job of her own, until such a time as we both left for university then she upped sticks and traveled with my father. At the time of her diagnosis they had both returned to the UK to prepare for an early retirement.
My mother’s reaction to her situation was stoic. A long career as a practice manager for a local GP’s surgery had forced her to face personal tragedy on a daily basis and she was not ignorant in the face of her symptoms. There was no internet search involved. The diagnosis did not surprise her she said. She had noticed a significant change in her body and it was that alone that had spurred her to seek a consultation.
The results of her tests were quick to come back, along with an immediate course of action, namely to remove the cancerous section of her colon and start a course of chemotherapy, all of this was, however, couched under the umbrella of Stage 3 cancer and a less than optimistic outlook.
My mother may have crumbled when in front of the consultant and undoubtedly she had dark moments of her own but she never exposed her fear to us. My children were 6 and 2 and my sister had just given birth to twins. She was determined to see her grandchildren grow up and was unwavering in her determination to fight this head on.
A date was set for the operation and an appointment made with a local wig maker who specialised in real hair wigs. I always admire those ladies that wear their cancer baldness so bravely but am sure that first decision to step out into the world without hair is not an easy one. My mother’s hair was her crowning glory and the thought of losing it seemed to upset her more than the prospect of the operation itself. Baldness and scarves were not for her, the wig was a necessity.
It’s funny but looking back my sister and I assumed roles of support for my mother and the “job of the hair” fell firmly in my camp. Like her, my hair is a big part of me, not because it is dramatic or different in anyway, in fact it is the complete opposite, fine and prone to kinks, it needs daily love and attention, just like my mother’s. Thus, the wig couldn’t be just any old wig it needed to be the “perfect” wig and bugger the cost.
We spent a lovely morning (if that is possible) with the wig maker, deciding on the style and colour. Her advice was not to go for a wig that looked like her existing hairstyle because it would draw more attention to the fact she was wearing one, so she encouraged my mother to be different with a shorter style, although the colour was almost identical. She was wonderful and looking back she took away some of my mother’s fear of being exposed. She was upbeat and positive, she didn’t say it would be fine because clearly it wouldn’t, but she was measured and reassuring. The value of the role of all of these people in The Big C process cannot be underestimated.
Perhaps what many will think is the most unusual part of this jigsaw is that my father returned to work. My sister and I were initially outraged. My mother fought his corner. If she wasn’t around there was no way he could retire. He wouldn’t cope. They had discussed it and he was not retiring, not now. It was not up for debate and non-negotiable. To this day I can recall the horrified reactions of everyone when they found out, but my mother batted the comments away. How dare they? Who were they to judge? Was this their cancer or crisis? No it wasn’t, so quite frankly they could keep their opinions to themselves.
The night before my mother’s operation was the longest of my life and probably of my mother’s too. Our arrival at the hospital the next morning was shrouded in fear. The ward was full of very sick people. The pre-operation room reeked of desperation. What is the point of trying to be upbeat when the faces of those around you shout fear straight back at you? Never in my life have I wanted to cry so much as I did that day. Saying goodbye to my mother as she was wheeled away to the theatre is a memory that stays with me to this day. “See you when you come back” I said. “I might not see you again” is what my subconscious said.
My mother was under the care of the NHS and despite having been through a major operation I wasn’t allowed to see her until the correct visiting hours the next day, but a voice mail reassured me that the operation had gone smoothly and she was recovering. What they didn’t tell us at that stage was that the cancer had spread to her liver. This is not uncommon in bowel cancer but we had not been warned of this or even contemplated this outcome.
So what next? Well after such major surgery there is no possibility of further surgery for three months so my mother was discharged and instructed to commence her chemotherapy. Between all of us and her friends we followed the advice and took her for her bi-weekly chemo sessions, whilst my parents sought the expertise of a consultant for the next stage. The decision was made that as soon as she was deemed well enough she would undergo another operation on her liver. Apparently, your liver is the only organ that can regenerate and regrow. The proposal was to remove two thirds of her liver but there were huge risks. My mother decided she had everything to live for and nothing to lose. She agreed to another round of surgery and a date was booked for when she finished her chemo.
By some miracle my mother is a survivor. She defied the odds and remains to this day the lynchpin of our family, just with a very large scar – the Mercedes scar as it is fondly known. A third of us will be diagnosed with cancer and in our family alone, my mother aside, my father and father-in-law have survived a battle with cancer and my husband’s mother sadly lost her life to cancer at 50. I am humbled every day by the stories of the survivors and of those that care for those afflicted by this terrible disease, but it is important as my mother reminds us all daily, to live our lives with hope not fear and face our battles when they come, if they do.