If any of you watch the TV series Cold Feet, you will know where i’m coming from. Jenny tells her best friend Karen that she has Breast Cancer. Karen doesn’t know what to say. Jenny says NOT to tell her that everything is going to be ok. Of course it’s not going to be ok. She has cancer. Jenny tells Karen to tell her that having Cancer is going to be shit.
With tears streaming down my face, it took me back to the time I had to tell my loved ones I had cancer. But more recently when my lovely Dad told me he had cancer. My Dad and I shared many things in common, but the one thing I wished we didn’t, was our cancer diagnosis.
My telephone conversation with my parents was very matter of fact with no emotion. It went similar to this: “I’ve been for a breast check and they’ve found pre-cancerous cells. It’s ok though as I only need a single mastectomy followed by reconstruction and everything will be ok and back to normal as quickly as possible”.
From the very beginning of my cancer diagnosis, the giving of information to my loved ones was going to be done in a very protective manner. To protect them from emotional distress. To try to protect them from the inconvenience my cancer diagnosis was going to create. But ultimately, to try to protect them from how very scared I was.
“It’s only a breast”. “It’s only a mastectomy”. “I’m OK. “I’m fine”. “I’m lucky”. These are MY words I said about MY diagnosis to other people. Having the need to underrate this life changing event. Once again to protect the people I love the most. Would I say these words to someone else who had the same diagnosis as me? Absolutely not. I would never say “Its only a breast” to someone who was about to have theirs surgically removed. Why did I think it was ok for me to say these things about myself?
Why did I not think that it was OK to shout out that it was unfair and cruel and shit to have cancer? Especially when I found out my cancer had spread and I needed the full works: Chemotherapy, Radiotherapy, more surgery, targeted therapy and hormonal therapy. That was well and truly shit to be fair.
“Stay positive”. “Be strong”. “You’ve got this”. “You are a warrior”. “It chose you because you can get through it”. “You are a survivor”. “You are so brave”. “Your hair will grow back”. “You got cancer for a reason”. “You are a fighter“. These are words people tell you. Words people think are helpful at the time.
I used to have many messages from distant friends, that got back in touch when they heard I had cancer. They offered lovely words of support very similar and including those I have just mentioned. I appreciated the messages so much and am grateful for people taking the time for doing so. Those messages of support got me through some of my darkest times.
But did I feel like a fighter? No.
Did I feel strong? No.
Did I feel brave? Hell no.
My body was falling apart and I had no control over it. I didn’t fight. The chemotherapy drugs attacked my cancer cells and every other living cell in my body. I didn’t fight to stay alive, the drugs did what they were supposed to do to hopefully keep me alive.
For 12 days following my chemotherapy, I took to my bed unable to function. I had no strength physically or emotionally. I was not strong.
I definitely did not feel brave. I felt scared. I felt a failure. A failure who had let everyone down.
Every message that I received asking how I was, I would always reply “I’m ok thank you. Thank you so much for asking”. But if my cancer was to come back, I would like my friends to write their future messages of support similar to the following:
Please tick the following that applies to you today:
(a) I’m feeling shit
(b) I’m feeling really shit
(c) I’m feeling shittier that I’ve ever felt in my life.
(d) So fucking shit, can you check in on my family to see if they are ok.
That is the reality. Cancer is shit and we pretend it’s not.
My Dad phoned me to tell me he had this ‘thing’ called ‘Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia’ and had just started oral chemotherapy. ‘I’m fine, I’m good at the moment‘ were his words that he always said to me right up until he died. But he knew that I knew differently. He knew that I felt his secret emotional pain and guilt. We both knew that it was fucking shit. Words were not necessary between us. However, a few words occasionally came out when we used to have Dad/Daughter time putting the world to right over a few San Miguel’s in the kitchen!
Did I think my Dad fought a battle? Every waking moment. My Dad fought tooth and nail to stay with us for longer.
Did I think my Dad was strong? Stronger than anyone I have ever known.
Did I think my Dad was brave? Without a shadow of a doubt. My Dad was so incredibly brave.
So I guess my point is this. Its Ok to not know what to say when someone tells you they have cancer. Its OK to use any words that you can find. And if you can’t find any words, that is ok too. Words can be forgotten and forgiven. What matters is that you are there. Showing your support when someone is going through the most difficult time of their lives. They need you. Having cancer is shit. But please remember, we have a sense of humour too. A much-needed sense of humour and a very dark sense of humour! It really is ok to say having cancer is shit!