End of Part Two.

Today marks 1172 days since cancer came into our family. 1168 days since my husband and I walked through the doors of this hospital, hand in hand, for the very first time.

Those doors were the last thing my husband saw of the outside world, before being wheeled into an ambulance and brought home to die. He said, at that point, that a bag for life would probably be an unwise investment.

Today, 463 days since my husband died, and 343 days since my own diagnosis, I walk out of the same doors once again, on my own, to the outside world, for what we all hope will be the very last time. To freedom. To our children. To countless more days.

Here, they’ve given me the most precious gift – my life, wrapped up in a metaphorical box with a bow, when my husband couldn’t even begin to pick off the sellotape. Here, my treatment has finished, and I am cancer free. The words don’t even seem real, after so many days of nothing but cancer. It’s going to take a while to adjust.

To say thank you, I brought a big box of chocolates for my radiographers, and asked them to share it around my husband’s oncology team as well, in the room next door.

Next week, it’s our fifteenth wedding anniversary. My husband’s life in a box – the ashes which are all that remain of his hands, his smile, and his wonderful mind – will be interred in the church yard where we stood and kissed for our wedding photographs, and where his dearest friends carried his coffin as we said our goodbyes. In sickness and in health, I was with him, and he with me. Maybe it’s time now to let him rest.

Until my husband and I meet again, I’m going to do one thing – for him, for our children, and for me.

I’m going to invest in a bag for life.

Love Fanny x

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One Fried Tit and a Healing Scab.

For two years, my husband and I went back and forth to the cancer hospital, through roadworks, down motorways, along side roads, and always into the same bloody car park. Back and forth. Back and forth. And then we waited. And waited. Their admin was dire. Their queuing system was dire. Their coffee was dire. But, the staff were lovely, and the relationship we had with my husband’s oncologist was great. Well, we knew each other very well in the end.

When we reached the end of the line – when it became clear that no more treatment could be found to save my husband – his oncologist told him that he needed to be admitted for a day or two; have a scan, and maybe a lung drain, and that we’d reconvene in a couple of days. Although the doctor’s message was clear to me, my abiding memory is of my husband being wheeled down the corridor to the ward, after the seventh failed attempt at cannulation. He turned around to grab my hand and said, “let’s not give up hope yet.” He couldn’t be dying. We’d just come home from holiday. A week before that we’d been riding rollercoasters in Blackpool. He wasn’t ready to die, and I wasn’t ready to let him.

But, there was no hope. I knew it. The oncologist knew it. All the nurses knew it. Over the course of the preceding weeks – when my husband was on a clinical trial which we thought might be the answer to our prayers – the oncologist hadn’t always been very direct, and we still clung on to the hope that a miracle was around the corner. 
A couple of days later, when we left the building for the very last time, we’d both commented that, at the very least, it was a relief that we’d never have to go back to that fucking place ever again.

How wrong we were. I now have daily visits to that same hospital, but without my husband to hold my hand. Parking in the same car park. Passing the café where we used to sit and drink awful coffee and wait for blood results. Walking past the same ward where I took one of the last photos of my husband, working on his laptop, tying up some loose ends. (We pissed ourselves at that, and he posed for the photo gladly. “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he said.) I pass the BEREAVEMENT SUITE. It’s a hospital – of course there’s a bereavement suite – but just in case you’ve forgotten that this is a cancer hospital, it’s written there, just by the entrance, in massive jolly writing, so you never quite forget that there’s a chance of BEREAVEMENT the moment you step through the fucking door. (We never actually went into the BEREAVEMENT SUITE because my husband died at home. Our sitting room is our BEREAVEMENT SUITE instead. I never go in there now, either.)

I’d managed to avoid the cancer hospital up until now, apart from a brief visit to check that my heart was in good enough shape to start chemotherapy. How ironic, I thought, that they needed to check the condition of my heart in the very place where they broke it. I’d been fortunate, in a way, that my surgery was done in our local hospital where they also have an excellent chemo unit, and they moved heaven and earth to make sure I didn’t have to go back to the place so full of difficult memories. Until radiotherapy.

I was expecting to be able to have that treatment at one of the local satellite centres too, but my oncologist wasn’t happy. She said my tumour had been too large, in too awkward a place, and she wanted to fry not only my left tit, but also my neck and my chest wall, to give me the greatest chance of survival. She wanted me to be in the best place for the treatment I needed. The best place? That best place also happened to be the place where they couldn’t cure my husband.

So, there I go. Every day for three weeks. I walk down the corridors, in a building which was so very much ours. It’s not somewhere I ever wanted to be ours, but bringing a friend with me now would make me miss my husband even more, so I go alone.

On the first day, I walked through the same door, into the same waiting room, with the same writing on the board, stating that my husband’s oncologist’s clinic was running 60 minutes late.

I froze.

There’s a fucking surprise, I thought. There are probably people in here who were behind my husband in the queue 15 months ago and are only just being seen. Three out of four of them will be dead by this time next year, I realised. I looked around and wondered which ones.

The same staff, the same waiting time, the same room, the same chairs, but no husband. No husband at all, because they couldn’t save him, here in the best place.

My husband’s oncologist never actually came to say goodbye. He never shook him by the hand, or said that it had been a pleasure to treat him. One of his colleagues discharged him in the end, because it was late on a Friday night and everyone else had gone home. We never saw the oncologist again, until the other day when I bumped into him as I was walking into Radiotherapy, and he was wandering over to speak to a patient.

He was thrilled to see me. He summoned over the whole team who were all smiles and welcomes and full of words about how sorry they were to have seen on the news that my husband had passed away – he was such a lovely man, they said. So humble. We’d had no idea how incredible a career he’d had, they said. Nor did we, I thought.

Then, of course, at the sudden realisation that I was quite clearly now a patient, the joy turned to concern. They wanted to know if I’d be OK. The oncologist asked after the boys. One of the nurses ran off to find catering quantities of tissues, and shoved sheet after sheet into my hands as the tears came – just as they always did, for my husband and me, every time we mentioned our darling boys as we sat together, holding hands, in the room just steps away from where I stood again, on my own.

They hadn’t forgotten us. It made me feel validated again. I was a human being – not a patient – and, more to the point, so was my husband. Of course they’d wanted to save him. They wanted to save everyone – and for the people like us with young kids, they throw as much as they can at us, even when they know there’s barely a scrap of hope. A scrap is sometimes enough. I think I understand that now.

I looked around, and realised that there would have been a string of patients who’d died under the oncologist’s care since my husband was discharged. The corridor still buzzed with people walking up and down; some in hats, some with lanyards, some in uniforms. A woman pushed her husband, too frail to walk, in a wheelchair. I looked at her sympathetically – I’d been there, even though my husband never opted for a wheelchair if he had the strength to walk. I realised she was looking back at me with sympathy too; I’d forgotten that I was now quite obviously a cancer patient, not a carer. Her husband had probably been normal and healthy, when mine was the patient in that wheelchair, just over a year ago. She smiled a smile of cancer solidarity, which implied that she knew how I felt. You haven’t a fucking clue, I thought. You poor, poor woman. Just you wait.

I realised then, that I’d been carrying so much anger within me for the team who couldn’t make my husband better, even though it wasn’t their fault. They can’t possibly shake every patient by the hand when they send them away to die, or point their relatives towards the BEREAVEMENT SUITE, because they’d be doing it every day. It would be soul-destroying. But, they did remember us. My husband was someone to them; they liked him, and they did their best. Sadly, it wasn’t enough, but it wasn’t because they hadn’t tried. They tried everything. In fact, they probably tried too much – and my husband had wanted them to. Anything for another few precious days with his family.

Maybe, I didn’t just need this wound to scab over. The act of coming back here – of ripping it off, letting the blood flow out, and starting again, is perhaps just what I needed to do to let the healing process start afresh. It’s been a bloody long and complicated way of healing, though.

Just because my husband’s time at the cancer hospital ended, doesn’t mean that time stopped here for everyone else. The place still functions and runs without him, even if the home I return to doesn’t function anywhere near as well.

Wives still push dying husbands up corridors. Bald little children with tubes in their noses still walk into the garden to sit and read for a bit, and try to be children. Women with hats and drawn-on eyebrows still complain about the shit coffee, but buy it anyway.
 

And the lucky ones get to walk past the door of that fucking BEREAVEMENT SUITE on the way out, and keep on walking.

Love Fanny x

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A Picture of Denial.

I spoke to a friend the other day. A friend who was deeply upset, because one of his friends had left it too late to check himself out… and now has a cancer which can’t be cured. We don’t yet know how long he has. It’s heartbreaking, and more so because it could have been avoided.

In the meantime, I’ve been receiving – for two bloody years – requests to put a heart on my wall, or an eight ball as my status, or to accept the challenge of posting a black and white picture, or a no make-up selfie, to raise awareness for cancer. Well, challenge accepted. Here’s my black and white, no make-up selfie, no hair selfie, no boob selfie, and no husband selfie. Our most recent portrait together, a few weeks ahead of our fifteenth wedding anniversary. ❤️

You don’t raise awareness of cancer by putting little gimmicks on Facebook. You raise awareness of cancer by sharing links to websites which outline the signs of cancer, like this one. You raise awareness by talking about cancer, and not being frightened to tell your doctor, or your friend, or you partner, that you’ve got a lump in your boob or bollock, or that you’re pooing blood, or that you’re struggling to swallow. The earlier you catch a cancer, the easier it is to treat. It’s not going to stop growing just because you don’t want it to be there, but it might not kill you if you do something about it early enough. And guess what? The process of my husband’s death was far more undignified than any check-up or operation, and had we caught his cancer earlier, he would still be here now – healthy, happy, and bringing up his children.

I’ve had more people pummelling my boobs over the last few months than I’d ever thought would be appropriate only weeks after being widowed, but it’s been worth it, because our little boys won’t have to watch another parent die. My left breast is now dangling in formaldehyde in a lab somewhere, probably. My hair is in landfill. And my husband is ashes, in a box. We miss him every second of every day.

I hate the way I look at the moment, but I hate the way my husband looks more. He’s going to look like that for far longer than I’ll look like this. Anyway, he was always keen to make a point at any cost, so maybe, together, at our least glamorous, we could save a life.

What are you most frightened of? Looking like me? Or looking like him?

See your doctor if you’re worried. This is what denial looks like.

Love Fanny x

Fanny’s Family Portrait 2017