Today is World Cancer Day, apparently. A day to raise awareness, though some of us are painfully aware already, thank you very much. I agree with it, in principle. Read their literature and educate yourself. Know the signs. Early detection is key, so don’t be afraid to visit the doctor. As a friend or relative, understand how you can help people who are going through treatment, or are recently bereaved. Avoiding the issue won’t make it go away, and not every cancer is treated with chemotherapy – many cancers are easy to get rid of, and the earlier they’re found, the better.
My recently bereaved eleven-year-old son has been using cancer to his advantage (and not just by wandering over to the pastoral centre at school every time he wants to get out of a lesson he’s not particularly keen on.) Having realised that my NHS-issue prosthetic boob, even with the stuffing removed, was too big for my bra, he’s been profiting from this problem, and was spotted wielding it at school and charging 5p for a feel. His daddy would be proud of his entrepreneurial spirit in the face of adversity, but would undoubtedly have charged a hell of a lot more. It used to take at least two bottles of wine and a night out to get me to whip my tits out, when they both existed, so 5p seems like a bargain. At the blood donation centre, my husband and I used to snigger every time they asked if either of us had ever paid for sex. We wondered if the Audi or the new coat from Karen Millen counted.
I doubt that anyone will be paying anything to see what’s left of mine now, which is fortunate, because the man who loved them the most is dead, and today – as every day – I fall between two very shitty stools, as a widow with cancer.
On the internet forums, the cancer widows seem pretty quiet about World Cancer Day, and I can’t blame them. They probably feel like I did, when my husband died. Why raise awareness about it now? Why fundraise for research or support? It’s a bit fucking late for us. Cancer Research funded the unit where my husband and I went, week after week, dangled on a string of hope, when there wasn’t any hope at all, and they knew it. I know this now too, because he’s dead. So, instead, we fundraised in his memory for people who would have given anything to trade places with us – to die in a warm bed, safe and surrounded by loved ones, rather than spend their lives shivering in the cold on the streets of Manchester, or fleeing bombs and persecution in war-torn Syria. My husband knew which side his bread was buttered on. He had been lucky. Having said that, I don’t want to die of cancer, any more than he did. Cancer is a horrid and lingering way to go. It’s why, every day, I tell my kids how much I love them; it’s why I’ve written a will, and why I’ve given my important passwords to someone I trust. I’m hoping that an aneurysm will get me instead, many years from now, quite suddenly, but not so suddenly that I haven’t yet got around to throwing away the sex toys that are gathering dust in the back of the wardrobe before the children come across them when they’re sorting out our stuff.
Yet now, as a cancer patient myself, things have changed. Suddenly, I’m grateful for the research into cancer treatment because I know that it will give my children the best hope of keeping one parent alive, even if it didn’t work for the other. I’m not suffering in the way I saw my husband suffer. The pain of the bereavement is worse than the pain in the wound where my left boob and lymph nodes used to be (which is still fucking painful, by the way,) but it isn’t so all-consuming that death would come as a relief. Of course, there are no guarantees that I’ll survive, but there are no guarantees that I’ll make it alive to Sainsbury’s tomorrow either, given the way that some people drive. My surgery results are in, though, my margins are clear, and the chemo I’m about to have is – like most post-op chemos – precautionary. My husband’s wasn’t. His margins weren’t clear, and he endured several rounds of palliative chemo. I probably won’t die, as long as we mop up all those stray cells before they’ve the chance to settle anywhere and grow again, and having hope (I mean, real hope) is something I’m incredibly grateful for. Those impending few months of baldness and nausea are a means to an end, and I’m damn well taking them if that’s all I need to do. I can do six months on chemo. My husband did four times that, on and off, and still worked full time until two weeks before he died.
I don’t feel much of an affinity with the internet widows any more, because I can’t remember how it felt when bereavement was the only worry I had. But, the breast cancer forums are far worse. Oh, fuck me. The Breastapo. They’re all warriors, that lot. By definition, these groups are mainly populated by “survivors” and don’t we know it. The Goddamn memes they post about how they’ve managed to get through something they thought would kill them, and how fucking clever they are. Well done. They – like me – turned up to some appointments and let highly qualified people do what they needed to do to cure their (in many cases eminently curable) cancer. It doesn’t make them brave. It makes them normal. Don’t get me wrong, they did the right thing to go to the doctor, and having cancer is as scary as shit, and I am thrilled that they’re OK – not only for them and their families, but because it gives hope to me and my children that I will be, too. But just as much respect for the people of all shapes and sizes who’ve dressed in pink and limped, waddled or run like gazelles around their local park to raise millions to make sure the research has been done to find a cure. So many of the posts I read are Titty Top Trumps. So how big was your tumour? Just four centimetres? Only three lymph nodes? Amateur. The pats on the back for their survival and bravery are, to a cancer widow with stage three breast cancer, pretty hard to read. And today I realised why. For many of these women, breast cancer is the very worst thing that’s ever happened to them. But it’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. One thing I will say for the widows, nobody tries to make out that their husband or wife is deader than anyone else’s.
It is great that so many people survive. It really is. But less than a year ago, I watched my husband die, and he didn’t bloody well want to. The research isn’t as far on for oesophageal and gastric cancers just yet, and he missed the boat. Yes, it’s reassuring to feel solidarity from people who’ve trodden the path before you. But, going through treatment isn’t actually brave, so for fuck’s sake quit with the high fives and the smug memes. Going through treatment is necessary. Accepting that you need to give up treatment when there’s no more hope at all is what’s actually brave. Choosing a suitable spot to place the bed you’re going to die in is brave. Writing letters to your beloved children, when you’ve only got a few days left, and you’re going to miss most of their entire fucking childhood, is brave. Collecting your husband’s end-of life drugs from the chemist is brave. Agreeing to a DNR is brave. Letting the nurses insert a syringe driver is brave because you know it’ll only be taken out once the vein it’s pumping into has stopped working. Kissing your daddy’s dead bald head is brave, and watching his body being carried out of his beloved home under a fucking blanket when you’re only ten years old is really damn brave. Having to choose what coffin and flowers and funeral songs your husband should have is brave. Signing the form to say they could shove a pipe up his arse and embalm him is brave, as is providing the photograph and the clothes which will help the undertakers to rebuild him into some semblance of normality before they take his body to be burned and ground to ash.
Do you know what’s not brave? Turning up at a hospital as a grown adult with responsibilities, and accepting the drugs which will almost certainly make you better, because – you know – responsibilities.
A friend, and my husband, died from cancer in the last few months. My friend was dismissed over and over when she turned up at her GP with symptoms, and she died. My husband’s GP was his best friend, and gave him the best attention and care that he could, but he still died. Neither could be saved. Those two wonderful people, who were physically strong; who adored and protected their kids, and who were fiercely loving of life and their families, both died – with levels of medical care at both ends of the spectrum. Did they not fight hard enough? Yes, they absolutely did, but sadly their cancers weren’t as treatable as mine.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to post one of these stupid memes on the internet about how strong you are, well done, but don’t forget the ones who can’t post anything, on account of their being too dead. I hope, one day, I’ll be lucky enough to be able to post one, too. But I won’t be posting anything, except gratitude for those who did whatever they could to fund or do the research which made my survival possible, whether they’re strangers running across parks in pink tutus, or friends turning up with sets of hair clippers and comedy wigs to keep the tumour humour alive. But I also hope I’ll never let this year of treatment define me as some sort of warrior. Once the hair grows back and the left tit is stuck back on, I want to move on, buy a new bikini, and barely mention it again. I’ll always advocate early detection, and support friends going through cancer in the future, but I’m so over it.
Some battles can be fought, but this one is indiscriminate. Without any weapons in our arsenal, we’re never going to win, no matter how “bravely” we face the oncoming hordes of bad cells. For now, I remain out of place as the only one-titted young widow in the village, with my husband’s ashes in one hand, and my kids holding tightly to the other. Thanks to all who’ve done their bit to make breast cancer a more survivable illness, I don’t have to free my hands to grab onto a white flag instead. I hope I’ll never have to.
Happy World Cancer Day, to those who are no longer here. We miss you like hell.
Love Fanny x