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The Other C Word

Does a cancer diagnosis mean everything has to change ?

I still remember the day it happened.

The day I found out my mother had cancer.

Even now, writing those words seems unnatural.

Looking back it’s funny how, like the flick of a switch, life can change. 

I felt like a character in a movie. Not a big screen one, more like a “made for tv” daytime movie of the week. You know the ones, they usually star one of the lesser known members of an 80s teen drama who you can’t quite remember the name of but you remember she checked into rehab in the early 1990s and was now re-committed to her ‘craft’.

See, we weren’t a “cancer” family – those families who have the constant whisper of cancer permeating every family gathering, who are acutely aware of the antioxidant levels in every major food group, and have a roll call of brave aunts, uncles and grandparents who had ‘battled’ this cruel disease.

I, on the other hand, had a clan that appeared somewhat smugly untouched. Let’s face it,  my battle with eczema and my father’s allergic reaction to penicillin hardly seemed on the extreme level of the ill health hierarchy.

Whilst I bought pink ribbons, donated to the latest cancer related charity drive, and made sure to lather on the sun screen, cancer to me seemed something that happened to other people.

But getting back to the call.

My mother had returned from her annual breast check up with her doctor. Her initial checks had come back with some inconclusive results. Something about some shadows on her mammogram. No biggie. She’d had this before and it had always turned out to be a cyst or something equally uneventful. Certainly not cancer.

She had what the doctor’s called “lumpy” breasts.  We had all laughed at this remark in the past. Whilst some women’s breasts are gushingly referred to as perky or buxom or burgeoning, lumpy is a term more often used to describe a bowl of porridge than a pair boobs.

So she had gone off for some further tests at the hospital. Life went on as usual. I kept researching possible destinations for my intended holiday over the Christmas break, my sister continued her daily school shuttle service for her two sons, and my mother was scheduled to see her doctor a week later.

The night before her appointment we had a family celebration with my sister’s in-laws. We hadn’t mentioned to anyone about the tests. We didn’t even know there was really anything wrong. We didn’t want to worry everyone. Mum didn’t want to “bring down the mood”. She’s always been good like that. So we all had dinner, ate too much bread, watched as the kids became increasingly active as they worked their way through the dessert buffet, and didn’t mention a thing.

Mum headed off the next afternoon with my father to get the results. There was no overwhelming sense of doom or crisis. She was feeling fine, had no symptoms and no lumps. I could almost hear the whisper of “is this follow up really necessary ?” in my regular phone debriefs with my sister.

In the prelude to her appointment we had done what any moderately tech savvy daughters would do. We consulted Dr Google. Now I must confess that I have long been what has been politely termed a ‘medical hobbyist’ and took with a little too much enthusiasm the task of researching my mother’s possible medical diagnosis.  

Let’s just say I am also prone to jumping from point a to points x, y and z when it comes to my health. Case in point – an incidence of chest pain obviously means blocked arteries which means surgery, which means time of work. Being self employed this means another layer of over-reaction but it’s all ok – I can divert my phone, work from my apartment, and I have checked and all my insurance ducks are in a row. Phew, I have everything at hand. Except an actual diagnosis of heart disease.

The good news was that according to the good team at Search Engine Surgery my mother was showing none of the typical signs of cancer and statistically it was likely to be a cyst. A quick in surgery procedure and my mother and her lumpy breast could return home.

The bad news was that, based on a few sneaky symptoms of my own loaded into the world wide web,  I now had potentially seven major health diagnoses to address.

I looked at my watch. It was 5.25pm and she would have had her appointment by now. Shortly after my mobile buzzed and I saw my father’s number come up. I say my father’s number as my mother has a mobile phone my mother doesn’t use a mobile phone. I think of it a bit like one of those people who have a car but still take public transport. Go figure.

Anyway, she started the conversation and by the sound of her voice I knew it was bad. Then the line cut off and we lost the connection. I dialled back and she continued with the news. Two more sentences in and the line goes dead. Again. She called back and in the midst of quite possibly the most significant news she has ever dropped, she is concerned about my father’s phone. It’s an iphone you see, and it is, in her words “very confusing” to operate.  I didn’t feel now was the appropriate time to let her know that apparently Apple test their products on five year olds to ensure ease of use.  Turns out she had been inadvertently switching the phone off as she held it up to her ear and she wasn’t  happy about it.  The touch screen really should be less sensitive she suggests.

Yep, in the midst of her possible life threatening health challenge she is concerned about the operational ease of Apple merchandise.

After convincing her to just get to the diagnosis, she reveals that the results have come back positive for early stage  breast cancer.  I felt the tears welling inside me and started firing questions at my mother. What is the prognosis ? What treatment is he suggesting ? Do they know if it has spread ? She said she was still digesting the information and would be seeing the specialist in a few days.

I hung up the phone and had an overwhelming instinct to move. To get outside. To walk. To feel the wind blowing in my face.  Fortunately I don’t live far from my office and was able to power walk the whole way home. To be honest I don’t remember getting from point a to b. I just walked and let the adrenalin direct me to where I needed to be.

Two days later. after my mother’s next appointment we had a family conference. She had all the treatment options neatly allocated into folders and went through the options calmly and rationally.

One thing I learnt very early on in the process is that with cancer, there’s a LOT of waiting. Waiting for follow up appointments. Waiting for blood tests. Waiting for body scans. Waiting for more waiting.

Collectively we agreed with my mother’s choice for treatment. She’s never been one to overly complicate life decisions – she was very much brought up with the British Royal Family motto of “never explain, never complain” invisibly emblazoned on her forehead. Without breaching her pit bull guarded privacy, I can share she was promptly listed for surgery and, after what seemed like an endless rota of drains and needles, she was released back home to recuperate.

It’s now been six years and mother is healthy and happy. She still gets annual checks but now appears to have settled into a comfortable rhythm.

There’s been no drastic lifestyle changes. No shift to a different diet or change to per pace of life.

I’ve learned that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t always mean dramatic realizations, extreme lifestyle changes or a pledge to make major adjustments to who you are.

For many people, like my mother, it means keeping things exactly as they were.

Sure she is conscious of her history, and is grateful she has come out the other side when many others don’t. She is thankful for her amazing medical care and the support of loving family and friends who were there every step of the way.

But she hasn’t let it define who she is or changed how she lives her life.

She’s my same old mother. The one who loves her family even more than herself; who makes the best chocolate cheesecake in the world; and believes that manners are mandatory.

Oh, and she still doesn’t have an iphone.

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