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.)

Blue Lights and Red Lipstick.

I don’t like to do things by halves. If you’re going to have cancer, you may as well do it properly, so I’ve been in hospital these last few days with neutropenic sepsis. Much to the disappointment of our children, who were out playing a football match, they missed a very dramatic ride in an ambulance as I was rushed off to A&E (but not before I’d left a present and card on the kitchen table for one of them to take to a birthday party that afternoon, because, you know, motherhood.) Like most women, I’ve always been fearful of having my jeans whipped off by a handsome paramedic on a hairy-leg day, but the chemo has sorted out that problem for me. My blood count had dropped so low that the common cold I caught last week could very well have killed me, but hey – at least my legs are smooth and shiny. As is my head.

Infection is a well-known complication of chemo, and easily fixed with antibiotics and blood-boosting injections, and because our children have already lost a parent, I didn’t mess about or wait a few hours when my temperature went up. By the time you read this, I’ll be home. They can save lives at our local hospital, but they can’t provide wifi. That’s a trade-off I’m happy to take, although our adolescent twins would probably think twice.
A few days before my admission, I’d been feeling really fed up. This latest recipe of chemo has floored me with flu-like symptoms, and a general feeling of exhaustion. I’d been fantasising of a nice lie down in a hotel room, with the boys and dog taken care of. Just me, on my own, relaxing with a book or two. I’ve decided not to make any more wishes as they obviously get lost in translation.

To keep life normal for the boys as I go through chemo, I’ve still been playing Mum’s Taxi, I’ve still worked full time from home, still attended school events, still watched them play football and cricket, still walked four miles a day with the dog, still played badminton with them in the garden, and I’ve even driven the three of us on a fourteen hour round trip, and spent two nights in a hotel, to attend a family gathering on the south coast – because if I carry on as normal, paint on some eyebrows, pop on a hat, and don’t behave like I’m ill, then I’m not ill. Right?

Wrong. The last few days have been an eye-opener, and a lesson in self-care, to say the least. Much as I remain impressed with our amazing NHS, I don’t want to come back into hospital again. I was placed in Protective Isolation in the world’s most uncomfortable hospital bed, and until the IV antibiotics started to work, and until my temperature came down after 36 hours or so, I didn’t even have the energy to read or write. Fortunately, Twin 1 very kindly loaded up his iPad with films for me to watch. His choice, not mine – a handpicked selection of movies about aeroplanes, terrorism, and a documentary on brothels.

I wasn’t allowed to drink tap water (and sterile water is, well, fucking disgusting) but they did let me wander up and down the corridors to keep myself moving during the long and miserable nights – partly to ease the lower back pain of lying down for too long, and partly so I could perfect my Lady with the Lamp impression, but with a drip, and a less attractive silhouette featuring one boob and a bald head. Oh, and there was always a people-watching opportunity outside Maternity, as the expectant mothers squeezed in one last cigarette just before the baby’s head started to crown.

Family and friends have been wonderful, as ever, and rallied around to help us, but my Mum and Dad live two and four hours’ drive away, respectively, and it can take some time to mobilise family troops. The reality of the situation here remains the same. No amount of eyebrow pencil, no supply of sparkly headgear, no carrying on regardless, can change things on a day-to-day basis. It’s getting tougher. When my husband was ill, he had me to keep everything going, and I remember so vividly that he said it was harder to be the carer. I think he’s right, but I’m now the patient as well. Having an ambulance sent for you because you’re alone; having to miss your kids’ football match (and then having to start making panicky calls from the back of said ambulance, under the blare of the sirens, to try to get them brought home and looked after,) and leaving some cash for them to go to the chippy for lunch because you’ve been too tired and weak to go to the supermarket (my Parent of the Year award is in the post) is properly, properly shit. The boys have eaten nothing but crap, and barely a vegetable or a vitamin has passed their lips, for weeks and weeks. I’m hoping that’s one of the fonder memories they’ll have of Mum’s Chemo Days.

On admission to hospital, I was asked about my marital status, and my next of kin. I should be used to the questions by now, but I still hesitated. I didn’t really want to say the answer out loud. All I know is that the tears came yet again as I let them tick the boxes about alcohol intake and stool consistency, and told them why I was there alone; that my real next of kin was dead. That the last time we raced to A&E, he was here, in the cubicle opposite the one I was now in. Just like him, I came in with a high temperature, collapsed veins, and a bald head, but this time, without a spouse to hold my hand, or to go in search of magazines and coffee machines. To carry the load of responsibilities still waiting at home.

I’m home now, where life is our own brand of normal. Where I can keep busy with work, and start every day in heels and war paint, once I’ve walked the dog. Where I pretend to the boys that I’m OK, because none of us can bear the alternative. Where I came out of hospital to a huge pile of work, but three hours after discharge returned to A&E with further complications. Everything was sorted without another admission, and I returned home in the early hours to find the boys sleeping side by side in mine and their Dad’s bed, for comfort. I slept in Twin 2’s bed instead – which definitely wouldn’t pass any Infection Control inspection.

My parents have done a brilliant job of keeping things going, even though the boys associate Grandparental Visits with Dying Parents, and respond accordingly, like proper little shitbags. Because they’re frightened. Because when their Daddy started to get taken away in ambulances, and grandparents arrived to help, he died soon after. They’re taking their anger out on everyone, especially me – as I did with my husband and children, when I thought life couldn’t get any worse. I was angry with the cancer, not with them; but I couldn’t always differentiate, and nor can they. How I wish we could go back to those days when being a family of four with terminal cancer was so much better than this.
When my husband and I could still be parents together.

Six weeks more of chemotherapy. Six weeks more of pretending I’m fine for the sake of the boys, but being a little more careful with myself to make sure I really am – because they will suffer the most in the long run if I’m not. I’m almost at the end of the road, and the end of this road will be the start of a new beginning, but perhaps I need to trade the heels for slippers, wear pyjamas more, bare the reality of my pasty and puffy chemo face, and admit that I’m not finding it all so easy.

My husband called me Wonder Woman. (He also called me TwatFace.) He knew I’d be OK, that it was safe to leave us, and that the boys would be alright in the end; that I would throw my heart and soul into the vacant position of Dad. He didn’t realise I’d go so far as to chop off my boob and shave my head to get into character, but – as I said – I don’t do things by halves. In a few weeks, Wonder Woman will be reborn – with a new razor for her legs, some hairspray, a sparkly scarf, and a brand new shade of lipstick.

Love Fanny x

Dedicated to Karen, who loved my husband, loved me, and encouraged us to love each other, despite the challenges which lay ahead. Who went to hospital last week, and wasn’t lucky enough to return home to her beloved family. A true Wonder Woman, and champion of the world. Rest in peace, my friend. X

Scrolling Back.

Death in a digital age is a funny old business. On Facebook Memories, a photograph has just flashed up to tell me that three years ago today, we were on a family day out to Liverpool, which we all enjoyed, save for the gnawing feeling in my stomach that my husband’s difficulty swallowing was not good news. Two years ago this week, or so it tells me, our little family was on a wonderful holiday, which we’d booked to celebrate our wild assumption that the whole shitty cancer thing was behind us. One year ago this week, my husband was lying in a hospice bed in our sitting room, dying.

Messages, wall posts and photographs have popped back up on my phone from this day last year. We’d told our wider circle of friends, through Facebook, a few days after my husband had been given a couple of weeks left to live, that his time was limited. As the days went on, his needs became greater and nobody expected us to reply to every message, but it was simply lovely to sit quietly together and read them. Of course, the outpouring of love and good memories was wonderful and heartwarming, which made my husband – who wasn’t up to seeing anyone in person – feel loved and treasured. He was a great communicator, and social media had become his platform, throughout his illness, to be himself – a place where nobody knew he was ill; where he could still be a man and not a cancer victim; where nobody stopped him to cock their head to one side, stroke his left arm, furrow their brow, and ask him how he was doing.

Once he’d been sent home from hospital, my husband and I rolled up our sleeves and started the Death Admin process. Writing letters to loved ones, seeing the few people he chose to see, winding down the business, realising it was just after the 1st April so he’d timed his retirement pretty well, but was going to take his Goddamned dividend because he may as well have it as not. It would pay for his funeral. Deciding not to reply to the text message from the stupid bastard cancer hospital who’d kicked him out late on Friday night, with his last breaths of life lingering inside a bottle of oxygen, asking him to rate their service. Cunts. Realising, once all the letters had been written, the passwords to everything noted, and the last calls made, that there was nothing left to say to each other at all. Not because we’d finally run out of words, but because everything that needed to be said, had been said before.

I sat and wondered if there was anything I needed to ask him, but couldn’t think of anything, and there was no nagging feeling of doubt. I also decided that the lumpiness I’d noticed within my left breast was a secret he didn’t need to share. His mind needed to be free and at peace. When he needed something, he asked for it. I tried to keep his bed tidy and comfortable. The boys lent him their favourite bedding, covered in London Underground maps. He was a pain in the arse with his medication. He kept taking off his oxygen tube. He needed a bloody good shave. He started to drink from a sippy cup. But, he always had his trademark jolly t-shirt to wear, and his watch, and his wedding ring. And a very thin friend lent him some pyjama bottoms which didn’t slide off what was left of his arse.

We took a few photos of him with the boys, which weren’t shared on Facebook because they were too private. I didn’t want people to remember him like that, and in some ways I wish we weren’t able to, either. Once our friends on social media became aware of his impending death, photos and memories were shared all over our walls, which brought him to life again, and captured his spirit, even as the body holding that spirit ebbed away.

When my husband had died, I became incredibly protective of his body. I insisted he went to be cared for by an undertaker who had been his friend. I took the best, most outrageously jolly shirt I could find to dress him in, along with his best trousers, socks and underpants. His friend rang to tell me that he was ready. Ready for what, I wondered. I went to see him, to sit with him, but asked his friend not to remove his coffin lid. Over the day or two since he’d died, I’d seen so many wonderful, lively, remarkable photographs and recordings of my husband in his heyday – healthy, happy, and full of life – that I couldn’t bear to go back to the memory of the thin, bald, weak shadow of a man inside that coffin. I knew they’d drained him of fluid and filled him back up again – it’s why they’d asked for a photograph to make sure they could push his beautiful pouting lips and high cheekbones back into place – and I couldn’t handle the thought of them doing it wrong, and never being able to unsee his cold, dead, fucked-about-with face. So, I sat with his coffin, with his name on the lid, in a tiny little room named after some ghastly racecourse or other, decorated with an awful floral border, a dense carpet, and artificial flowers. And I wept. Then, I wondered if the dense carpet was there to break the fall in case the coffin fell off its perch. I looked at the shape of the coffin and hoped to God his broad shoulders weren’t too tightly packed in there and that he had room for manoeuvre. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being dead.

I wonder if I’ll ever forgive myself for not wanting to see him after he’d died. Those wonderful pictures of him, healthy and well – and, actually, far too bloody fat at times – took me back so suddenly and so instantly to a happier time, that it seemed pointless remembering the person he’d become – the person he hated to look at in the mirror. Cancer was in that coffin, but the memories, the soul, the beauty of the man – well, they were all over social media. They were in the little device in my pocket that I could pick up any time and look at. But, as the months have marched on since, the further back I have to scroll to find him. And, once I’ve found him, I still have to scroll past the skinniness, the oxygen mask, the shit final holiday, the four months of wearing the hideous grey hoodie which was the only thing he could find to keep himself warm enough. (He was right. It’s bloody lovely. I wear it so he can hug my bald head and body as the chemo knocks the heat out of me, too.)

Almost 365 days on, I have to scroll a long way back to find him now. I scroll through his Facebook wall to find his own postings. I scroll through my phone to find pictures of him from happier times. I have to scroll past our days out, our stupid dog, my bald head and wig selection process, snaps of my left tit in various states of disrepair, our boys in their new school uniforms, our first summer holiday as a threesome, our boys on their last day of primary school, more stupid bloody dog, visits to Great Granny, a charity run for sodding cancer, family weddings, fucking Fathers’ Day, meals out, the boys’ 11th birthday, trips to the football, his funeral flowers reworked by the local hospice to give their patients a boost, his coffin, flowers and more flowers adorning our home, and him, with his treasured boys, cuddled up in bed. And back, and back, until we find some happiness again.

This time last year, my husband was dying, but he was still my husband. His hands held ours, and we were a family. Late tomorrow, this time last year, my husband will have died, which takes him another step further away from us. But, as I scroll back, I realise we have made some memories since he left us. Some new ones. There are some happy times in there, but all tinged with an aching loss that one person is missing from the picture, and we can’t simply photoshop him back in again. He isn’t even here to take photographs of me in chemo chairs balancing sick bowls on my head, even though it’s tradition. But maybe it’s time for a new tradition. Maybe I have to accept that, one day, we will have taken more photographs without him, than with him.

It’s almost 365 days, and 768 photographs, since I held his beautiful hands. But I can still scroll back with my fingers, for as long as it takes, just to touch his hand once more.

Love Fanny x

A Handful of Gravely Important Decisions.

On Wednesday, I chose a new boob. On Sunday, I chose a place to bury my husband.

To be honest, selecting a spot for my husband to lie for eternity was slightly easier than choosing a piece of silicone to fit in my bra for a year. There are only about eight spaces left in the graveyard of our church, but a whole cupboard full of squishy possibilities. If the tit doesn’t fit, I can try a new one. My husband’s grave, on the other hand, will be a much more permanent fixture, so it’s important to get it right first time, but the options are limited.

At the hospital, yet another sympathetically nice lady in a lanyard ushered me into yet another side room (I’ve seen a few over the last few months – nice ladies AND side rooms – all of them decked out in inoffensive pastel colours,) and asked me to remove my bra. I dangled it on the side of a chair and wondered where to put the bit of temporary foam I’d been given until the swelling in my mastectomy site had gone down sufficiently for me to advance to the silicone level. She looked me up and down, decided my remaining boob was a little on the small side, and presented me with the first falsie she thought might match. Size 3, out of a possible 93. Or so. But it was WAY too big.

Like actual ones, false breasts come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of firmness. It’s a bit like a pillow menu, but with tits. (And I don’t have anyone to bury their head in them and offer an expert opinion.) My job was to don my free bra, which is about as sexy and industrial-strength as you’d imagine an NHS-issue bra to be, insert a selection of false tits, squeeze my breasts with both hands, and – remembering my husband’s reassurance that “any more than a handful is a waste” – choose the one which felt the most similar to my existing one. Eventually, I settled for a size 2, and the softest variety I could find. Breastfeeding twins and a lifetime of yoyo dieting had clearly taken their toll on my right hand side, and – despite still believing I had remained small and perfectly formed – I left the room feeling I’d probably need to order some scaffolding for the original side. But, it’s better, comfier, and easier to wash than the boob-shaped piece of foam I’d had before, and I’ll no longer have to wait in a lopsided fashion for the spin cycle to end, and hope to fuck that nobody comes to the door before my tit dries out.

Choosing a spot for my husband was easier than the breast selection process – but emotionally far more difficult, because in a year from now they’re not going to be reinstalling him, like they will with my left boob. The weight of responsibility in choosing the right place is huge. He had asked for his ashes to be buried at our church, and I don’t want to let him down, but he probably didn’t realise how few spaces were left. Every time one of the old dears from the congregation has had a bit of a fall over the last year, I’ve panicked, and thought I’d better get him into the graveyard before someone else grabs the last spot. I want him to have his wish, but I also want to keep him at home with us for longer. Almost a year on, I feel pressured to let him go; simply to guarantee him the permanent memorial he deserves. But what if we move? I only live in this town because he was here first, and had roots. And now he isn’t here at all. Will his lying in a grave, rather than a box in our office, mean I’ll never be able to move away because I want to keep him looking tidy? Or will moving him out of our home and into a grave make it easier for me to move forward and accept that he is gone for good?

I remember, a few days before he died, my husband sat and talked to the boys about his forthcoming death, and what would happen. He explained about funerals and cremation, and how he would be interred in the churchyard. They asked why he had to be in turd. We all giggled. How funny it was, this forthcoming death, which none of us believed would really happen.

In a way, cremation adds a whole new pressure on the next of kin. With a burial, it’s done on the same day. Here we all are, gathered together, in mourning. In they go. Job done. A place to visit, to tend, and to reflect. No going back. With ashes, there’s a range of possibilities – possibilities you don’t even necessarily want to consider. Do we bury them? Scatter them? Do we get some jewellery made from a small piece of them? And if we do, what if we lose it? (Before my diagnosis, I did consider getting a pendant made from a tiny piece of him so that he could sit in his favourite place – my cleavage – for ever more.) A paperweight? Who the fuck actually uses paperweights any more? What about some other keepsake? There’s a company called “And Vinyly” which makes records out of ashes, and since my husband loved music – and a bloody good pun – that’s also something I’d like to explore. So, I’ll probably hold a little bit of him back, and let most of him go… under the little tree, by the vestry door, where he’ll be every day as the boys walk to and from school, so they can pop in and sit with him as often as they like. Or they can just look over from the pavement, if they want to. We’d all still have a little privacy to sit beside him, but he’ll be close enough to the road for us to feel safe enough to visit him even as the nights draw in, without going into the depths of the graveyard. And we can even wave at him from the bar of the pub over the road. It’s perfect. But it’s not where we want him to be. We want him here, with us, at home. Alive.

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be choosing tits and graves in the space of a week, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I think I know what’s going to be joining my husband in the churchyard when it’s finished resting on my heart, as he still does. Small enough to fit into a memorial vase with a few carnations poking out of the top. Soft, squishy, and no more than a handful. Size 2.

Love Fanny x

I don’t know who this guy is, but he had a lot in common with my husband.

Brian May’s Merkin

This has just happened. 

After only a few days on chemo, I’m taking control of the hair loss situation with a pre-emptive strike, and I’m jumping before I’ve been pushed. Now I’ve done it, I’m not sure which would have been worse – waking up among ever thicker clumps of curls on my pillow, day after day, or the resultant ‘do which has seen me go from Tim to Edwina Currie in half an hour flat. I’m not quite rocking the Matt Lucas just yet, but give it a week or so.

We’ve been here before, with my husband, and we could always tell when the hair loss was a few days away when the pubes started to appear around the loo seat with alarming regularity. They were always the first to go. My somewhat unruly Widows’ Bush still passes the tug test for now, so I reckon it’ll be a few more days before anything happens on my head. Not that I’ve really spent an awful lot of time tugging.

I honestly thought that losing my hair would be the easy part. The mastectomy had been the frightening bit, because – before it happened – I thought it meant losing everything that made me a woman. The hair wasn’t a problem. I was up for it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I was almost looking forward to choosing a cute little Audrey Hepburn pixie crop ahead of The Big Shave, and not having to dry the ridiculously thick, unruly mane I’ve learned to cope with over the years. After spending a large fraction of my waking life with my head upside down over a diffuser, a quick polish and go was beginning to sound appealing.

But that isn’t how it is. On a daily basis, since my op, I look in the mirror at the scar where my left breast used to be, and I feel OK. Early on, I realised that the boob had never, actually, made me who I am. And anyway, it’ll be back, nipple and all. In the meantime, I pop in a Knitted Knocker and off I go. I’m more bothered by the half a fucking stone that I’ve put on in the last few weeks. Seriously – losing the weight of my (admittedly fairly small) left boob seems to have made absolutely no difference at all, which is one of the greatest disappointments of my treatment so far, but that can be dealt with later.

Our boys have seen what’s left of me. I was determined, from the start of all this, to carry on as normal. We’ve always been an open family, and as they were growing up (OK, partly because my husband and I were far too tight to pay for interconnecting hotel rooms on holiday,) they’ve seen us in all naked shapes and sizes. They’ve seen us both at our chunkiest, at our fittest, and even felt the severe muscle wastage towards the end of my husband’s life, as we all smothered sun block onto ourselves in Lanzarote three weeks before he died. Fucking Lanzarote. It wasn’t just the sun we were blocking out. When we got home, they knew deep down, because they had seen it for themselves, that their Daddy had to die. I think we probably all did. They had to learn, at too young an age, that a fabulous body was nowhere near as important as a phenomenal mind, heart and soul, and their Daddy had those three things in abundance. To be fair, a great bod had never been quite his forte.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve made sure that the boys have seen my mastectomy scar as part of me. I feel fortunate that they’re still pre-pubescent, because I don’t suppose that their seeing me in various degrees of undress is something any of us would want in a few months’ time. At first, I suppose I eased them in gently, and it was just something they might have spotted if they were hanging around upstairs as I got dressed. No big deal. But yes – there were comments, as only 11 year old boys can provide. Now, they see it all the time, and nobody notices it any more, as I casually hop into the shower, or as I run down the landing half naked to bellow at them to get their fucking shoes on. I didn’t want one missing tit to be a big deal for them. I wanted them to see me, to know me, and to love me, just as I am now. I wanted them to realise that – heaven forbid – if one day they were to support their wife or girlfriend (or boyfriend – I’m very modern) through something similar, that loving their partner anyway, no matter how many missing body parts they had, would be the most natural thing on earth.

Still, when I returned from my oncology appointment the other week, and told the boys that yes, chemo would be of “indisputable benefit,” one vomited and went to bed for 24 hours. The other got into a fight with a friend. They were angry, worried, and upset – not about the pending sickness and tiredness, but about the fact that I was going to let the doctors do something to me which would make my hair fall out. I promised them that it would grow back, that I’d wear a hat in the meantime, and that they could even see the wig I’d chosen. They didn’t want to know, and I didn’t understand why the hair loss – of all things – bothered them so much, when the thought of it hadn’t been bothering me much at all. But, for the boys, cancer means chemo. Chemo means bald. Bald means dying.

Now, as the remains of Brian May’s merkin lie on the floor, and I look in the mirror, I can see it. I understand. I know what panics my children, and the fact is that no wig, no hat, and no prosthetic boob will hide it. Their mum has cancer. Their dad died, a few months ago, looking much like I will in the next few days. They’re not old enough, or strong enough, or confident enough, yet, to allow themselves to believe there will be a different outcome for me. They don’t care if I have a left breast or not, but until my hair grows back, they will know I have cancer. It’ll be written all over my face. They will remember, and that will hurt us all for far longer than it will take for my body to be slowly pieced back together.

Love Fanny x

The Only One-Titted Widow in the Village.

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

Just a little amendment to a smug fucking meme. You’re welcome.

Three Chicken Fillets and a Pencil Test.

It’s almost a week since my mastectomy. And do you know what? I’m actually OK. The worst thing that was going to happen to my body, ever, has happened. My left breast has gone.

It was bad enough, almost twelve years ago, when – having sat through NCT meetings, smugly proclaiming that I wouldn’t be having any pain relief and heaven forbid a Caesarean section – I had to be knocked out cold to have two babies ripped from my womb in a dire state of emergency following a placental abruption. As parents of IVF babies, we were the only couple we knew who could honestly say that we hadn’t been either present or awake for the conception or the birth of our own biological children. Although I was traumatised by the boys’ birth for weeks, and cried buckets over the loss of the one experience I’d so desperately craved, I soon learned to love our babies so much that it didn’t matter how they’d arrived in the world, because they’d arrived alive. And my husband couldn’t help but admit that he was rather pleased I’d managed to deliver twins, yet still avoid ending up with a fanny like a clown’s pocket. 

I feel the same about my breast. I didn’t think I would, but I do. It’s OK. I’m OK. Sore and tired, but OK. The greatest pain comes from where they took my lymph nodes, not from the breast area itself. For the first couple of days, I couldn’t bear to look at what was left. I cried when they woke me up from my operation, and when my friends came to the hospital to collect what was left of me. The wound was covered with dressings, and it still will be until they remove them at my results clinic on Friday, but the flatness is something that can’t be hidden. I’d been showering as normal, but making sure I avoided going anywhere near the mirror.  

About three days in, I decided to look. And the good news is that I definitely still pass the pencil test.  

It’s a little like when you meet someone who has an unusual face. At first, you think, oh fuck. And then, after a while, you stop noticing. They just become who they are, and you love them anyway – because of their faults, not in spite of them. We all know enough supposedly pretty people who are ugly inside, and vice versa, that the soul is always what shines through the most strongly, and I refuse to have mine tainted with bitterness and anger. This new land of uniboobity hasn’t changed who I am in the slightest, and nobody’s more surprised about that than I am. I’m determined to keep my soul intact; to learn and grow, to find some positivity in all of this (fuck knows what,) and to choose how I deal with my life experiences. I am not a victim. I’m not a warrior. I’m still just me. Unevenly-cleavaged me. My husband’s soul is holding mine tightly, and through asking myself what he might say, I’m finding the strength to love the imperfect me as I loved – and always will love – the imperfect him. He really was imperfect (I mean, for fuck’s sake, aren’t they all?) but I’d give away my other boob if it meant I could have him back again. I can’t. So what now? I can’t change my past, but I can take control of my own happiness. Within all this pain, something good must come. Otherwise, what’s the point in going through it at all?  

Maybe if I thought they weren’t going to reconstruct my breast after my treatment, I’d be mourning it more. But, the worst thing that could possibly have happened to our family, already has. My husband has died. What’s worse than dying? Not a lot. There’s absolutely nothing left of him, yet we still love and want him more than ever. At the moment, I’m trying to be the best mum I can be with temporarily limited mobility, and I’m even up and about, doing a bit of work, and cooking meals for the three of us. Chicken fillets, obviously. 

What I’ve got – well, it’s only cancer. Not terminal cancer. So, I remain grateful. I’m going to put my best boob forward and carry the fuck on. 

Love Fanny x