Chemotherapy: The Highlights.

As I come to the end of my final cycle of chemo for breast cancer, and as the side-effects gradually start to wear off, I’d like to reflect on my personal highlights. If you’ve been there, feel free to add your own in the comments… 

1. It’s a bit like being pregnant. You’ll spend at least three months of your life feeling nauseous, with a hospital bag packed and ready, and you’ll have to treat soft cheese and shellfish with the same contempt as nuclear waste. And your tits will never be the same again.

2. Baldness can be liberating. At first. As even more hair falls out, the time you save not having to do your hair will be spent attempting to draw on ever more complicated eyebrows. You’ll save a fortune in waxing, though, so – every cloud.

3. But… as a cancer patient, you’ll qualify for a Look Good Feel Better course. A makeup lesson, complete with free bag of makeup in someone else’s colours, in which an unfeasibly elderly Michelle teaches a roomful of baldies how to contour their faces back out of The Chemo Swell and more towards normality. An extra tutorial on blending into the non-existent hairline might have been handy.

4. You probably won’t lose weight. In fact, the combination of anti-nausea drugs and steriods may make you pile it on, and apparently the one lost boob and a whole head of hair weighed nothing. Fucking NOTHING. I added a stone in 18 weeks. The pre-treatment weigh-in is a reverse Slimming World in which the nurses congratulate you for gaining a few pounds, and you have to smile and try to hide the fact that if you’d known about The Chemo Stone you’d never have agreed to having the bastard stuff in the first place. ( Obviously that’s a lie. You graciously and gratefully take whatever drugs might make you better. But you still feel shit about piling on the weight.)

5. It’s not all dreadful. Towards the end of each cycle, you may feel quite well. While there are many, many days ranging from feeling very ill to mildly off-colour, for much of the time, you can live your life. I worked daily (from home, admittedly,) still took the boys to their sports games even if I couldn’t always watch, and walked the dog on non-shit days. In fact, the more you do, the less time you have to think about how awful it is, and there’s no need to think like an ill person. Being widowed on chemo has been the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but actually, in hindsight, I’m proud of myself for not crumbling. I couldn’t afford to. I’m also truly grateful to friends and family for stepping in on the occasions when I’ve been stuck.

6. Talking of which, you’ll definitely find out who your friends are. And who your friends aren’t. ‘Nuff said.

7. Wigs. Itchy little fuckers. I didn’t usually bother. You’ll only need to find out once though, the hard way, that it’s a good idea to keep an Emergency Hat by the front door for that unexpected visit from the postman.

8. Chemo Brain. It’s an actual thing. I had a point to make about this. Forgotten what it was.

9. Needles. You’ll get used to being cannulated all over, but the daily self-injections are prickly little bastards that boost your blood cells, and you have to do those all by yourself. Take a deep breath, lift your dress, shove it in, and breathe out again. Similar to, but much less fun than, mediocre sex.

10. Loss of taste. Tabasco on EVERYTHING. You’ll know you’re officially ill when you go off alcohol.

11. The menopause. Or not. My ovaries decided to have a ten week long bloody protest in desperation, but have given up for good in favour of hot flushes. Keep a leaflet with you at all times as a makeshift fan (in my case, I use the order of service from my husband’s funeral which has never left my handbag. I like to think he’s doing his bit to help.)

12. Constipation. Or diarrhoea. Or both. Either way, when you finally produce a firm, slippery, satisfying turd you’ll never have been more pleased with yourself.

13. Every fucker’s an oncologist. Smile politely as perfect strangers trot out all the miracle cures they’ve read about on the internet. Or share their own cancer stories. My personal favourite amateur surgeon is a chap I meet on my dog walks. He’d noticed I’d lost my hair and, because we’re northern, he wasn’t too polite to comment. He told me he’d had radiotherapy ten years ago. “Doesn’t work, you know,” he ventured. Well, mate, I’d like to wager that if you’d had it ten years ago, then it probably actually did.

14. Sympathy central. Cancer is the Rolls-Royce of illness, bringing with it everyone’s sympathy (and free parking at the hospital,) but there are definite degrees of shit, and most people who catch theirs early will almost certainly survive. People with other, more permanent life-limiting conditions – Crohn’s, MS, MND, mental health problems, etc. – don’t tend to get the same cocked-head reaction, yet their condition is ongoing, with no cure so far. If you’re lucky enough to have a treatable cancer, please remember those less fortunate when your hair has grown back and you’ve got your all-clear.

15. Sick bowls, not swords. Walking around with a sick bowl under your chin for a few weeks doesn’t make you a warrior. There are no “survivors” and it isn’t a “battle.” I found a stage three tumour in my breast in enough time to be cured. My husband had a stage three tumour in his oesophagus and died. Did he not tell the doctor in time, or fight hard enough? No. We both turned up to all our appointments and took all available treatment. I was lucky. He wasn’t. For his sake, and our children’s, don’t tell me I’ve been amazing. He was, too.

16. Living is lucky. If you’re fortunate enough to be rid of the bloody thing for good, please don’t let the shadow hang over you forever. Worrying about it won’t change anything. We all diagnose ourselves with an incurable brain tumour the moment we get a headache, but people who’ve had cancer before are more likely to be taken seriously by a doctor if symptoms persist. So, keep an eye on yourself, alert the doctor to any changes, and in the meantime, bugger off and live your life to the full, in honour of those who didn’t make it. They really do want you to.

Love Fanny x

*Bear in mind that all cancers are different and all chemo regimes have different side effects. Many don’t cause hair loss, for example. My treatment regime was Cyclophosphamide and Epirubicin for 9 weeks, and then 9 weeks of Docetaxel/Taxotere. Oh, and a massive overdose of tumour humour.

Picture by Askell on DeviantArt

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Warts and All.

I haven’t buried my husband’s ashes yet. I still can’t bring myself to do it, although there have been some conversations with the vicar, so we’re moving forward, slowly. The other day, our son – who had hitherto been quite reluctant to part with them – asked when his Dad would be buried. I said I wasn’t sure.

“Oh,” he said, with obvious disappointment. “I wanted to go and lay some flowers on his grave for Fathers’ Day.”

Those boys are hurting, badly. And it’s only now that I realise just how much, and how much twelve-year-old boys without a father, or even a father figure, struggle – because I can try to be Mum and Dad, but it’s always going to be a compromise. I’m stretched so thinly that I can’t give them everything they need, and I’m taking a lot of my own stress and anger out on them.

Our boys were lucky. For ten years, they had the very best dad in the world, and I don’t use that term lightly. They really did. Nobody adored their children the way he did. He wasn’t always soft with them, but they were exceptionally close and the boys knew just how much they were loved. I was looking through some family photos last night, and what struck me the most was that the same little boy who asked to lay some flowers on his Daddy’s grave was always – always – pictured nuzzling into his father. Not just standing there. Nuzzling him. They adored each other. Even as his mother, I can’t begin to comprehend that child’s loss.

One thing I’m beginning to notice, now I’m a double – not single – parent, is how jealous and angry the boys are with other children whose father is still alive. They are furious. It isn’t fair. These dads – great as they are – are not my children’s dads. They’re pretty good prototype dads, but our boys’ dad was the real deal. The best in the world. They don’t want their friends’ dads. They want their own. When kids complain about their dads being grumpy old arseholes, my boys are cross about it. But at least you’ve got one, they think. You don’t know how lucky you are, they think. They’ve chosen to forget what a grumpy old arsehole their own dad could be.

It’s easy to look back with rose tinted spectacles, and my two do. Of course they do. They are children, and they think like children, but it surprises me that many adults think that way, too. On the online forums, widows and widowers write with great bitterness about friends who turn to them to complain about their (still very much alive) spouse, expecting their widowed friend to listen with sympathy. They don’t. They listen with rage and regret, because they’d give anything to have their own spouse back. They are angry. Angry with anyone who still has their family.

I don’t feel quite like that. Much as I wish my own family was still complete, I actually love to hear my friends complain about their partners. It’s what we do, we women, and being confided in makes me feel as if I’m still valid as a wife, mother and confidante. That I’m still normal. One of the gang. Men are terminally idiotic, and rolling our eyes at how stupid they are is every woman’s favourite pastime. My husband was no exception. He was grumpy, untidy, and out of shape. He never got around to finishing odd jobs, or picking up his wet towels. Don’t get me started on how keen he was to share his opinions, or what a terrible back seat driver he was. I’ve stopped and thrown the car keys at him in the middle of a busy road and told him to drive the fucking car instead then on more than one occasion. He could be a complete twat at times. But, as a husband, and a father, he was the whole package – from wanker to wonderful – and the only person we wanted to fill those very special roles. He was OUR massive fucking annoying twatbastard, and we wouldn’t have changed him. Well, not completely.

As a grieving widow, I’m so desperate to have him back – warts and all – that it’s actually important to remember that there were warts. Plenty of them. My husband’s greatest fear, before he died, was that he’d be canonised in our minds and remembered as some remarkable and faultless being. I assured him that this would never happen. While I can accept that he had faults, and love him because of them – not in spite of them – our children don’t yet have the emotional intelligence or maturity to take anything other than offence at other children’s comments – both positive and negative – about their own fathers. They miss their own too much.

Since he died – actually, no. Since before he died, when we knew he’d never get better, the boys have begged me to provide them with a new stepdad. This seemed odd to me at first, and actually a little offensive, because I couldn’t understand why they would suddenly want someone to take their beloved father’s place. But, they tell me that they just want to be a foursome again. They hate having to divide me in two, and think that if someone made me happy then I would stop crying all the time. (I also think there’s another rather significant element, in that they could really do with someone else around to offer lifts.) In their imagination, their stepdad is a man just like their Daddy. In reality, if they ever do have a stepdad, he’ll have baggage – probably a few kids that they may or may not get along with – different opinions, and a whole new selection of funny little ways. He won’t love them the way their Daddy loved them, because – by definition – he will not be their Daddy. He will be, just like my husband, unique. Irreplaceable. Different. I’m not sure I’m ready for different. I’m not even ready to accept that there’s a vacancy.

When other women whinge to me about their stupid fucking husbands, it doesn’t bother me at all, partly because I like to remember how often I felt like punching my own, and partly because it reminds me that I really am in no hurry to meet another man. I pity my friends, because they never had the privilege of being married to my husband. (Well, a couple of people did, but we’re not really in touch with them any more.) And I pity anyone who one day thinks they could fill my husband’s shoes. The only thing that hurts me deeply is seeing other couples loved up, and their children behaving, as ours used to do. A few weeks ago, I stood with extended family on a beach – the rest of them cuddling their spouses and adoring their wonderful children – as I screamed at my two to stop twatting each other and drawing massive cocks in the sand. My little family was unravelling in front of my eyes and I’d never felt so alone or missed my husband more.

I don’t want a new one, though. Maybe because I’m approaching the end of my treatment, and beginning to see a new start in life ahead of me which I know my husband would want me to grab with both hands, I do occasionally wonder if it’s time to start thinking about dating – not because I need male attention, or rampant sex, but because I’m beyond knackered and could really do with someone to let the dog out early in the morning every now and again.

I can only imagine the internet profile: Bald, one-titted widow. Mediocre cook. Needs a bit of a hand with the kids. Struggling to put up some shelves.

No thank you. Yes, I’m exhausted. Yes, I’m beginning to realise just how desperately my children need a father figure. Yes, I’m finding being Mum and Dad very, very tough. But I’ve just spent Fathers’ Day with our boys, ignoring the significance of the day, mending some garden equipment and building a new drum kit. I even changed a lightbulb. There was no trip to a grave, because there still isn’t one, but I know that their real dad will have been with me all the way, watching me use the wrong bloody spanner, and desperate to jump in and criticise. But he can’t. And what I wouldn’t give to roll my eyes, throw the spanner at him, and tell him to fucking well get on with it himself then, one more time.

We miss you, Superdad. Warts and all.

Love Fanny x

 

 

Bastard Funeral

Not my husband’s funeral flowers. He’d have approved, though. Image from Pinterest.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dear Chemo.

My relentless positivity is waning. The dark thoughts are setting in, and becoming far harder to shake off than the last few eyelashes which have long been sobbed into a snotty tissue. I have two children who miss their father, but I miss him too, and if it weren’t for them, perhaps I wouldn’t have bothered to fight this at all. In fact, I think I resent the fact that I can’t just say fuck it and join him, wherever he is. Because I do have his beloved children, though, and no family nearby to bring them up, I don’t have a choice. But, Christ, it’s hard – especially when the two children you’re doing it for are not helping you to row upstream, but are standing on the riverbank, chucking rocks at you as you try to do it alone.

They’re eleven. Nearly twelve. And they’re about as much fun as you’d imagine a pair of bereaved pre-teen boys dealing with yet more cancer to be. We’ve been talking about their forthcoming birthday celebrations. Supermum here has always made sure they had a party – and a bloody good one. Well, they’re twins, so I massively overcompensated for the fact that they never got to have a party of their own (the obscene quantities of pirate bunting in our loft are testament to that.) But, yet again, this year, the thought of a whole load of boys in the house (all, inevitably, being dickheads – none more so than our elder twin) fills me with fear. And I’m trying to plan the date around my chemotherapy, and find a weekend when I’m most likely to be well enough to cope.
So why not postpone their birthday? Well, because this is the fourth birthday of shit, and they barely remember what life was like before cancer. The boys were eight when our world was turned upside down. On their ninth birthday, I handled things, because their dad was on chemo. He was involved in the party, but not feeling too well. They understood that it needed to be low-key, and that their next birthday would be better. On their tenth birthday, I handled things, because their dad’s first round of palliative chemo had just begun. They had a sleepover, but it was low-key, and they were really good about it, because they knew it might be the last one with their dad. On their eleventh birthday, their dad had just died. They had a sleepover and a trampoline party, but it had to be low-key, and we were all feeling pretty flat but didn’t want to not celebrate, because that’s not what Dad would have wanted. Just widowed, I didn’t have the energy to field a whole houseful of Year 6 boys, but I’d promised them, now that the whole cancer thing was over, their twelfth would be one to celebrate. And now, yet again, one of us is bald, sick, and having to crawl through yet another birthday on our knees.

None of this is fair – not on me, but not on them either. Recently, I’ve begun to identify the problems, and there are so many, I don’t even know where to begin. My husband and I had all the answers, you see. We were the greatest team in the world, and our children were brilliant. Not perfect – still little shits at times – but loved, secure, interesting, engaging, and funny. Happy. Really happy. We were so fucking smug about how happy they were, because we were getting the whole parenthood thing pretty much right. We decided, when they were tiny, that the greatest gift we could give to them was The World, and went on wonderful adventures to faraway lands with two little smiling blond boys, all skater shorts and smiles, who could have stepped straight out of a Boden catalogue. People would stop us in the street and talk to us, wherever we went. Our openness and sense of fun must have shone out of us. I didn’t realise at the time how precious this was, or how far down the spiral of shit we’d all fallen, until I walked into the house the other day to find one twin in his new natural habitat, fingers glued to the X Box controller and half an eye on a YouTube video about Fifa or wanking or whatever, and the other screaming into a kebab because the idiot in the shop had put salad on it. The stupid fucking twat.

They’re awful, gobby and angry, and I’m beginning to understand why. Because, three years ago, I was the same. I hated their dad being ill. I sympathised with him, because I’m an adult and (three weeks out of four, anyway) more rational than a little boy, so we talked about it at night and hugged each other better. We were both fucking furious with the disease, but while he just laid there being ill, I had to run around and pick up the pieces of the life we had before, and it made me bloody angry, but he understood, and he kissed me better. Our entire life as we knew it had been ruined, but I thought if he could just get off the sofa and pretend to be well, or turn up to football matches, or attend parents’ evenings, everything would be OK again. All those feelings of rage within me have now been turned on to me, by our children, who see me being defeated by the same damn disease which claimed their dad. They are afraid – quite legitimately – of becoming orphans. At their age, I’m fairly sure that my greatest concern was which member of New Kids on the Block I’d marry first. (Not Donny.)

Well-meaning people constantly tell our boys to look after me, but it’s the worst thing they could possibly say. It implies that we could all have done more as a family to save their dad, if only we’d looked after him better. It isn’t true, and it hurts so bloody much. We could not have saved him, and the boys can’t save me. We just have to hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to be on the right side of the survival statistics, and I believe I will be. Either way, there’s not much I can do about it, but by the time they really start to believe I’m fine, when this is all a dim and distant memory, their childhoods will be over for good.

In only a few weeks, we’ll be back to normal. It won’t kill the boys to have a bit more screen time until then. It won’t hurt to just eat freezer food with oven chips. It’s fine if they go to bed a bit late, or haven’t brushed their teeth for precisely two minutes. Or at all. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t work all that hard at school today. Only a little while to go, and we can pick up again where we left off. Never mind that they don’t want to do drama at the moment, or cricket, or roller skating, or football. It’s fine. We’ll go back to it in a few weeks. It won’t permanently damage them if they don’t eat their vegetables for a while. Just let’s get through this bit of chemo and then we’ll slide back into normality again.

We’ve been saying all that for their last four birthdays. This brief hump of chemo, to overcome in whichever way we can – and another, and another – has become a lifestyle. An entire childhood. Because I don’t have the energy to pick many battles, I’m letting a lot of things slide. In fact, half the time, I’m lying down and crying while the pre-teen cavalry ride roughshod over me with their Xbox controllers and tracksuits, grunting into their phones, and dropping bits of unwanted kebab salad in my ear.

We’d always been honest with our children about cancer, from day one. They knew their Dad’s would be a tough one to fight, respected our honesty, and believed us. We shared our triumphs and our darkest moments, and realised that no amount of stretching the truth would stretch out his life, so saving their feelings with white lies was pointless. As the oncologist said, if a miracle happened, the boys weren’t going to come back and punch him in the face for making their Daddy better. However, the doctors made a mistake. They thought he was getting better, and we told the boys we’d still be a family for a year or more. We hugged each other with delight, and booked another holiday. Six weeks later, he sat on our sofa late on a Friday night, having been brought home in an ambulance, hooked up to an oxygen tank and permanently discharged from hospital. We hugged and cried with our beloved boys again, as he told them they’d missed the biggest tumour of them all. It wasn’t fluid on his lung. He had been brought home to die. And guess what? Our boys now don’t believe anything that the cancer doctors say. So, why would they believe that I’ll be alive for their thirteenth birthday, even though the doctors are sure that I will be? Why would they trust that we’ll ever go on a Christmas adventure holiday again, when the last three have been cancelled?

And nobody really, truly understands. Even I don’t understand. That’s why, maybe, despite my kids being the most difficult, angry, stubborn, malnourished, over-screentimed, worst people in the world at the moment, I still feel the need to fight their corner. I observe the boys and their friends a lot, and canvass opinion with other parents, and the general consensus is that they’re no worse than anyone else’s children at this stage in their lives. In fact, considering what they’ve been through, they’re doing bloody well. They’re working hard(ish) at school, seem popular with teachers (mainly,) are maintaining and developing friendships, and are also going through all the usual shit of being picked on or dropped by others. But that’s what kids do, and – for the most part – I let them get on with it, because two oversensitive kids who are already struggling with friendships probably don’t want some bald-headed titless wonder wading in and cramping their style. Apparently, some of their friends are bored with hearing about cancer now. Well, so the fuck are we.

In a few weeks, when the chemotherapy and radiotherapy are over with, I like to think we will – somehow – find this elusive New Normal. The one we’ve been trying to find for so long. The one with discipline and energy and fun and good manners. And possibly even one or two vegetables. (Sadly, I think I’ve probably lost the Battle of Boden, and the tracksuits are here to stay for the foreseeable future.) Until then, I know I have to just keep a lid on it and understand things from our children’s point of view, when I’ve stopped screaming at them. Our children, who still play football on a team run by dads, who desperately miss their own dad being on the sidelines, cheering them on. Our children, whose mum had no sooner taken the role of Dad, than she’d begun to disappear from the football sidelines as well. They don’t believe it’s temporary. They don’t believe I’ll be back, willing them to victory next season, along with their friends. I intend to prove them wrong.

Until then, I’m going to give them the one thing that their friends have had every year, even though our boys probably don’t deserve it – a birthday party, with cake and candles, friends and fun. And, next year, there will be no cloud of doubt to choke them when the candles are blown out.

I promise.

Love Fanny x

The shittiest birthday cake of them all. (Source: Google Images.)