110. The brand new cancer patient


4 April 2014

Most of the time I am OK. I've had a good sleep.

But I cry when there is no reason to hold it together, no-one around I need to be strong for.

I sobbed and sobbed in my husband's arms that night when we first knew. This was big and we both knew it. Even when this turns out to be absolutely fine (not if - when), it is big.

There is the shock of finding myself a different person than I was a few days ago, because now I am a cancer patient.

There is the confrontation that we knew would need to come one day... we are both getting older and things will start going wrong. We will have to accept that, and learn that time - life - love - is more important than anything.

There is beauty and grace in it too, an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude even as I lay crying.

We talked afterwards about how I couldn't possibly cope with reconstructive surgery (if it comes to that), how I would much rather have the scars and the half-empty chest than an implant. Because for me, that is life: we grow older, our hair greys, our skin wrinkles, our breasts sag under the onslaught of childbearing and gravity, and it is good, even beautiful.

My husband agrees. The beauty, the grace, the gratitude that brings fresh tears to my eyes is the realisation that we can do this. We can grow old together, bear life's scars, and it doesn't diminish but deepens our love.

I feel incredibly blessed to have my family and more friends than I knew.

So I carry on during the day.

I spent yesterday at work, trying to finish the grant proposal and emailing colleagues, telling them exactly what the matter is and why I cannot now give that talk / go to Germany to run a workshop / organise that meeting / write those papers.

My manager told me to go home but I said no, I need to be here. People are ringing and texting me, so I don't want to sit at home. My older daughter is off school and she may pick something up before we tell her tonight.

I was fine sitting in my office. My colleague (who shares it) is on maternity leave so I could close the door and be alone. I could focus on simple work tasks. But at the end of the afternoon, when I thought I'd finished all my work on that grant proposal and could now go home to focus on family and on breathing, I suddenly remembered some forms I'd forgotten about. I needed to fill them in and get them signed off before I could submit the grant proposal. And suddenly, out of all proportion, I had to close and lock my door, sit down, put my arms on my desk and my head on my arms, and cry.

Same today: fine in the morning, of course I'll cope, everything will be fine. But then it suddenly hits me and I get butterflies in my stomach, my skin tingles, my hands are sweaty. The tears fight their way out.

I took my younger daughter swimming, as I always do on a Friday after school, and there I was, half-wet in the changing cubicle, unable to hold back those tears. I tried and tried but they wouldn't be stopped. Just as well I'd been swimming, it could explain the red eyes.

We planned to tell the girls at suppertime.

I was ridiculously nervous. That just confirmed how right it is to be open and honest at all times, because otherwise, when is a good time to tell? "Oh, by the way, we saw a doctor last month and now I have to have an operation tomorrow"?

So, when there was a lull in the girls' endless chatter, I said: "I suppose I'd better tell them my news."

Husband: "Yes, I think you'd better."

So off I went...

"It's not nice news. I've got to go into hospital after Easter to have an operation."

"An operation?"

"Yes, I found a lump in my breast and they have to take it out."

Older daughter, immediately: "Is it cancer?"

"Yes it is. But it's very small so they will be able to take it out."

Younger daughter: "I thought cancer spreads and then you die."

"Yes, that would happen if you left it in. That's why I have to have the operation, so they can take the cancer out. Then it can't spread and I won't die."

Older daughter: "So-and-so at school, her mum and dad both had cancer. Her mum got better and her dad died."

"Oh goodness, that's tough. I will get better, but there will be lots of hospital appointments and tests. I have to go for a scan on Wednesday, for example. I'm sad because I'll miss younger daughter's Lent reflection at school, but I have to go for the test."

My younger daughter was most unimpressed by this and told me in no uncertain terms that I must absolutely change the date of the scan, because (her words exactly) her event is far more important.

My husband tried to impress on her that actually, in the months ahead mum is most important, and they have to make sure that they don't make things difficult for her. But I think it's rather splendid that my younger daughter thinks her school event is more important than her mum's cancer. In her own universe, of course it is. It's better that way. I don't want her mum's illness to loom large in her life.

And my older daughter will be fine too, I hope. She and I can talk, she will ask me about it, and she knows that I will answer.

Continued tomorrow...