Cancer ceases to be an impersonal issue typified by a leaflet that drops through your letter box asking for donations or an ad on TV which distracts you because you think that these things will not happen to you. These things only happen to other people, you tell yourself. But, as I found out, it can happen to you, to anyone.
There are so many ways in which a story of cancer can be told. There is the viewpoint of the sufferer himself/herself, the spouse’s worry, the child/children, wider family members and friends. I have a daughter and her father was diagnosed with Cancer in May this year. This is the viewpoint that I have chosen – the heartbreak that was involved in having to tell my daughter that Dad had Cancer. It was one of the worst moments of my life so far.
I have wanted to write about about this experience for 6 months in the hope that I could help someone going through the same experience or that someone who had been there before me could impart some wisdom. The session at Blogfest 15 titled – ‘Giving it away: The public stories of our private lives’ finally gave me the courage to do so.
My daughter had just sat her first GCSE exam paper in early May. Our lives were galvanised around seeing her through a stressful time. Her father had been for what we thought was a routine check up two weeks before her first exam. I thought no more about it and, frankly, neither did he. Soon after he went for a follow up appointment and was told that he had Stage 2A Melanoma and that more tests would have to be done to discover how far the Cancer had spread.The world felt like it had caved in.
I found out while I was at work and was about to attend a meeting with my boss. I had to duck out of that one to compose myself. I went out for a walk. Being in the midst of a busy world brought home the realisation that life, somehow, carries on. We had decided almost straight away not to tell our daughter till she had finished her exam, some 6 weeks away. This meant that I had to appear ‘normal’ at all times. I was to find out what that meant till the middle of June.
Going home that evening from work was one of the hardest journeys that I had made knowing that I would have to interact with my daughter in a way that did not alert her. I managed it by the grace of God.
When someone is diagnosed with Cancer one of the best ways of dealing with it is to share the burden. It was hard for me to call friends and family up for fear that my daughter would over hear me. I sent texts instead. They were all told to keep it a secret in the interim. We were overwhelmed with how every single person (about 25 people in total) agreed with our decision and declared support.
The diagnosis, however, had battered my self-esteem. I was worried about telling people by texts. Just like it is bad grace to break up a relationship via text, I wondered about the efficacy of informing loved ones the same way of bad news. One close friend of 34 years did not respond immediately. At this stage I was worrying about the smallest things in an irrational manner. I sent this friend another text apologising for having had to have informed him in an impersonal manner. I have saved his reply. It simply said: “Jane, you can contact me on any subject at any time, that is what a friend is for.”
There were so many times when I wanted to yell at the top of my voice, “your father has Cancer”, and I almost did one Sunday when he cooked our daughter a roast and she took one bite and pushed the plate away. At this stage we didn’t know how wide spread the Cancer was and were trying to stay positive while frequently giving in to bouts of pessimistic despair.
I looked for advice on how the news should be broken to my daughter. I had to be careful not to leave a search history on the family computer. It felt like we were all in a speeding car heading for a crash.
His exploratory operation was scheduled for the third week of the GCSE exams. Two days before the operation I had to present at a board meeting. I put on one of my favourite suits and on my way to work discovered that I had lost enough weight that the skirt was sliding down my waist. I had to sit down while giving my presentation for fear that the skirt would end up around my ankles.
After the exploratory operation he was weak and ill and by some dint of luck our daughter did not seem him in this state because he was asleep when she came back from an exam and was out the next day before he woke up. I informed her school about the domestic ‘chaos’ in fear that she would find out and be unable to carry on with her exams. The school put a process in place to support her if that had transpired. Till this day she wonders how she never guessed at anything and is amazed that everyone else, the frequent visitors to our home and the pastoral officers at school asking after her well being, knew about it.
During this time Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote a letter about how she and her children were grieving over her husband’s death. While her sorrow was a thousand times greater than mine, I read and re-read her letter many times to prise any pearl of wisdom to help me.
When the letter from the hospital arrived giving the appointment date and time for the full results of his operation to be given we were appalled to discover that it was scheduled for the day after her last exam. After much soul searching and conversations with friends and family we decided that it was best to tell her straight after her exam had finished. There was no time for a gentle lead in.
I lived in a state of dread all day on 18 June. To all outward purposes it felt like a normal day. At 10.30pm that night, after she had been out celebrating the end of the GCSEs with her friends, we sat her down and told her. Even writing about it now, almost 6 months later, makes me feel clammy. She cried and cried and went outside to call her best friend. I could hear her sobbing uncontrollably.
The next day the three of us went to the hospital for the early morning appointment. Think of a day that is as furthest away from a Happy Christmas day and you will land on where our feelings were. He went in and came out an hour later. The Cancer had spread to his Lymph Nodes but the operation had been successful in removing it all. The diagnosis of Stage 2A was unchanged. Relief. Sheer relief. The dark fear that had gripped us for almost two months was gone in a second.
He is still at a 5 year risk of it progressing and has quarterly check ups. For now the sea is calm. My daughter obtained 5A*s and 5As in her GCSE exams. Our strategy had worked. I am left with a lasting sense of respect and sympathy for those who have a Cancer diagnosis of a much later stage and for their children, spouses and family and friends who share the burden.