In 2013 my world started to crumble around me. At 13 years old I remember being sat down with my brother and told that my 40 year old mother had breast cancer. Nothing could have ever prepared me for the feelings and devastation I felt when those words left my father’s lips. After being told this heart wrenching news my flight response took over causing me to run to the garden where I sat for hours trying to process what I had just been told. I spent the rest of the evening crying for my beloved family.
After her diagnosis my Mum was told she would need an operation to remove the cancerous tissue from her breast (a mastectomy) as well as 6 rounds of chemotherapy spreading over the course of 6 months. It was at this stage that her and my family started to notice the real changes and horrible side effects of chemotherapy.
My Mum is a cheery, bubbly, positive person, always caring for everyone before herself, but when she was receiving treatment this all changed. The up-beat, brunette that used to sit across the living room from me was now frail, anxious and wearing cotton hats to cover her balding head. Her confidence had been completely knocked coming to terms with her new body and image that was staring back at her in the mirror but she got through it thanks to my Dad.
Throughout my Mum’s treatment my Dad was her rock and strength to get her through the day. He attended every appointment with her, held her hand through surgery and helped her to rationalise her anxious thoughts that hit her like a tonne of bricks at various points of the day. It was through this period that I truly recognised the amount of love they had for each other and truly honouring their vows ‘through sickness and in health’.
Alongside supporting my Mother my Dad was also the rock for my brother and I. Seeing my mother suffering from this horrible disease as well as struggling through anxiety and depression impacted me greatly causing my Dad to urge me to seek help at Maggie’s Cancer Centre where I was able to pour out every ounce of sadness, anger and anxiety that seemed to be consuming me.
Luckily, my Mum was deemed cancer-free at the end of her chemotherapy which was a massive relief for my family. It felt like the awful life we had been living for the last year was now coming to an end. I felt lighter and so grateful to still have my strong Mum to guide me through life.
Although we thought our bad luck was over, it turned out it had only just started. Less than two years after my Mum was given the all clear my Dad began suffering severe headaches and loss of speech. After originally being signed off work with stress, further investigation and more crippling headaches led to the discovery of a tumour in my Dad’s brain.
It would’ve been easy to go into panic mode at this point but we all still remained hopeful that the tumour was benign and it could be removed through an operation, however, only 95% could be removed. During my father’s stay in hospital after his operation the medication and steroids he was on turned him into a paranoid wreck thinking he was unsafe and never going to be able to leave. This was the first time I had ever seen my Dad truly vulnerable and scared as he pleaded for me and my mother not to leave his side.
After the tumour had been removed the conclusion of the biopsy taken was that it was indeed cancerous, meaning he would require further treatment in order to try and get rid of it completely. His treatment consisted of 3 rounds of chemo followed by daily radiotherapy on weekdays for 3 weeks. I remember accompanying him to the hospital for radiotherapy a couple times on the bus where he told me how much he dreaded going each day. I tried to reassure him telling him that it would soon be over and he wouldn’t have to wake up with it looming over him for much longer.
Unlike my Mum the chemotherapy and radiotherapy didn’t have a huge impact on my Dad’s day to day life aside from having a decreased appetite and being more tired compared to normal. He didn’t suffer sickness, dramatic weight loss or mouth ulcers which can be common side effects of cancer treatment. After treatment was completed all that was left to do was wait for the results of a brain scan to see if it had worked.
Everyone involved in Dad’s treatment were convinced he had reacted well to both the chemo and radiotherapy yet the scan showed that the cancer had spread. At this point he was told things weren’t looking hopeful but he could have another 3 rounds of chemo to see if it would make a difference. Unfortunately it did not and my Dad was given a terminal prognosis being told he had just months left.
Despite this my Dad was with us for another year and a half making the most of the time he had left. Towards the final 8 months of Dad’s life he started to deteriorate quite quickly. His speech began to be less understandable, he was unable to climb up the stairs, his memory began to fade and towards the end it was difficult to manage the pain he was enduring.
Whilst my Dad was ill I didn’t struggle as much as I did when my Mum was ill. It sounds awful but having the experience of cancer and its effects enabled me to be stronger the second time around. Don’t get me wrong it was the hardest time of my life but to this day I have no idea how I made it through without crumbling.
I spent that year and a half living a double life not even telling my friends the extent of Dad’s illness, only revealing his terminal prognosis 4 months before he died. I went to school where I played the happy, laid back teenager and then somewhere on my walk back home would turn into a teenager caring for her dying Dad. Some days I had to stop before entering the house, shedding my school character and bracing myself to step inside my house where my worries were now administering painkillers, translating Dad’s limited speech to people who couldn’t understand him and helping him into bed. For a long time a double life is what I needed to feel ‘normal’ so I could still enjoy part of my youth. Even the day my Dad died people at school didn’t believe that he was dead as I still attended my Christmas dance the evening of the day he died. For days after his death I refused to think about how it impacted my life, all I was focused on was that he no longer had to suffer.
Another reason I hid my home life from everyone out-with my close inner circle is because I didn’t want people’s pity or for it to change the way I was viewed. I didn’t want the label of ‘the girl whose Dad is dying’ or for anyone to see me any differently. No one my age understood the life I was living at home and I didn’t want the awkward responses and smiles that would follow if I told them about my Dad. I was not ashamed, lets get that straight, I just didn’t see the point in sharing my pain and worry with people who couldn’t relate and would feel bad about not knowing what to say.
This brings me to why I am writing this post in the first place as I wish I had been able to know there was someone out there who felt the same. Someone who knew what it felt like to feel like none of your friends could relate through no fault of their own. In a way I didn’t want to burden my friends with the horrific details of cancer when they were able to live not truly knowing the destruction it can cause. It was an unnecessary detail they didn’t need in their lives.
To anyone who has watched someone close to them go through cancer or has seen the havoc this horrible disease can cause I hope you can relate to even a little of what I have said. Everyone deals with these things in their own way and there is no right or wrong way to process what is happening. I want you to know you are not alone with this and that cancer is not a taboo subject. It has had a huge impact on my life but I’m not going to let it define it.