When a small mass was discovered in my sigmoid colon I found myself staring into an abyss of uncertainty. Biopsies were taken. A CT scan was scheduled to see if it had spread. I was left with an interminable 10-day wait until my fate was to be sealed in a colorectal surgeon’s office at 11:40am the following Wednesday.
If cancer is cruel then waiting for those results was pure malevolence. But I’m a mum so life went on. I clicked into autopilot – dropping the kids off at school, running errands, supervising homework. I never once let on to my children that my life was hanging in the balance.
I didn’t allow myself time to wallow until after 7pm. That’s when the wheels fell off. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. Stage 1 and I was in with a fighting chance. Stage 4 meant slashed odds and a long, arduous battle ahead of us. My mind started playing tricks on me. I convinced myself of the worst possible scenario. I composed eloquent, emotional letters to my girls, a new one every year until they turned eighteen. I chose Don Henley and Ryan Adams songs to play at my funeral.
I was so scared, yet when I thought of my daughters I wanted to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ with two clenched fists and a kung-fu kick. No child deserves to lose a parent, certainly not my sweet, sensitive girls. And not at the ages of six and four. I’m a strong woman. I tend to absorb bad news and turn it to my advantage but the thought of my children growing up motherless made me fall apart in my husband’s arms. I wasn’t crying for me, for my lost opportunities. I was crying for theirs.
When I gave birth to Emily in 2011 I found myself metamorphosing into some selfless, altruistic being. I certainly hadn’t been that way nine months before, with a cocktail in one hand and a diary full of social occasions in the other. But just how much motherhood has changed me was only apparent in the split-second that followed my cancer discovery, when I had one thought and one thought only:
Thank god it’s me. Thank god it’s not them.
I can’t imagine the pain of having a child diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps that’s why the news has hit my parents so hard? It’s also exposed a number of base emotions in me that I thought I’d left behind in my twenties – envy, self-pity… I see obese families in the supermarkets loading their trolleys with junk food and elderly men chain-smoking, and I find myself thinking, ‘why me?’ Why are my girls facing an uncertain future? They’re innocents in all this, as I am. I eat well, I hardly drink and I exercise three times a week. But that’s the problem with cancer. It’s such an indiscriminate bastard of a disease.
Last week I found myself shaking hands with a colorectal surgeon on the threshold of his office. The 10-day wait was over. I was so nervous I could hardly stand. I didn’t even register the two oncology nurses behind him.
‘I have good news and bad news. We believe its cancer but we’ve caught it early.’
I fist-pumped the air. I think I may have whooped as well. I couldn’t help myself… I’d just been ‘officially’ diagnosed with cancer yet my face was beaming. The surgeon looked stunned but I could only think in currencies of time. A Stage 1-2 diagnosis bought me major surgery but a 90% shot at seeing my girls go to University.
I’ve had so many wonderful comments from friends and family since I shared my news. A few have remarked on how positive and brave I’m being. I don’t see myself as particularly brave. I’m just a mum fighting with everything I have to see my little girls grow up. To be there when their hearts get broken, to console or congratulate them on GCSE Results Day, to offer advice when their babies won’t sleep through the night… To be there for them, no matter what.
That’s not being brave. That’s just being a mum.
*This article has also appeared as a Huffington Post UK Featured Blog Post