As it’s breast cancer awareness month, I wanted to do my bit and share a story to hopefully raise awareness and encourage some support.
This isn’t typical for my blog and is something I was unsure whether or not to write about but, alas, here I am.
So, to cut to the point, my mum died of cancer at just 37 years old. I was four days from turning 13 at the time, so I’ll be speaking from memory/ a child’s perspective.
I don’t know many details about how many courses of chemotherapy or which dates certain things happened but, eight years later, I can tell you how it’s affected me as a young woman.
My mum was always very passionate and encouraging and did all she could to ensure both me and my brother grew up smart, confident and understanding. Despite being just 9 years old (my brother, 11) when she first found a lump, nothing was hidden from us.
Mum was always dancing around naked anyway so it would’ve been a bit strange for us to suddenly notice a scar one day. In 2002 or ’03 (I don’t remember exactly) my mum was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I understood that was a bad thing, but remember only feeling nervous about it when the teachers at school pulled me out of lessons to talk with the school therapist.
I was quiet at school and kept my head down, mum had the lump removed and they grafted skin from her back to her breast to encourage healing. Then she had chemotherapy and lost her hair.
Again, this wasn’t a big deal for me. I could see she was still smiling, singing and dancing as usual so it was just my mum but with fancy wigs and headscarves. Then radiotherapy which was cool because my mum was theoretically superman and could microwave food at the tap of a finger.
Then she went in to remission. I think it was for about two years but I’m not sure exactly. I started secondary school in 2005 and had just about adjusted to my new school and new body (I was wearing bras at 10) before my mum was diagnosed again. Older and with a deeper understanding of what the C word means, I knew this time was going to be much harder.
Mum and dad sat us down and explained that mum had cancer again but they couldn’t treat it. Without really understanding how or why, I looked for something to blame – mainly cigarettes although even the doctors told me it was completely unrelated in mum’s case. Still, don’t smoke!
Life went on, I continued to keep my head down and watch crappy TV and eat spaghetti with my mum, somewhat oblivious to her illness for quite a while. During this time, we were introduced to Nikki – a Macmillan Cancer Support worker – who usually sat with us and had a cup of coffee on Saturdays.
My mum was a carer by the way, so she had a green coat, badge-watch and a wide smile as well. Nikki was great, so I sort of assumed she was just one of mum’s friends or colleagues.
Maybe I wasn’t so observant as an 11 year old, but I didn’t notice my mum getting worse at all. I noticed everyone was especially nice and offering help but found it unnecessary as mum was fine. Then, one night as I stood up to help her get off her chair to go to bed, she just didn’t respond to me. My brother was at his friends’ and my dad was out so I panicked and couldn’t get her to respond to me until my dad returned about 10 minutes later. Now, looking back, I understand she must’ve been in some kind of coma.
Everything after this is a bit of a blur, but she was soon taken to hospital where we spent Christmas with her and decorated her yellow room with flowers. I was used to hospitals after last time so again must’ve unconsciously assumed she was there to get better.
We were taken by either my dad or friends of the family to visit her almost every day after school. Then, in January, she was taken to a nearby hospice.
I didn’t realise that a hospice is where people go to be cared for before they die, I guess I hadn’t allowed the thought to cross my mind. I was focused on things like what my mum was having for dinner and hopefully she was still reading and do I tell her that I started my period?
She shared a room with 4 other women, and was right by a beautiful bay window that overlooked the garden. She often told us that she’d see deer or pheasants outside and chatted quite normally with the staff and other patients.
My brother and I would occasionally chat to the other women, although the second time I had quite an awakening to the scale of the situation was when I noticed just how thin the woman opposite had got. Her arms were so frail you could see the shape of the bones, I’d never seen anything like it. The next time we came to visit, her bed was empty.
We got into a little routine at the hospice. Visit mum after school, speedily wheel her around the corridors towards the smoking room, back to her bed in time for dinner which I would feed to her. I always wondered why my dad and brother didn’t but now understand how hard it must’ve been for them. They had their own way of coping.
The next wake-up call was when dinner came round and I got ready to feed it to her, but they didn’t bring her any. I was furious and was about to ask the nurse why they forgot my mum before our friend, Ed, explained that mum told them not to. She couldn’t speak much at this point but smiled and held our hands.
The rest of the week we came in for much longer every day, but the atmosphere had changed. I wanted to tell mum about what I wanted us to do on my birthday and bring the gerbils in again for her to see but she couldn’t talk back so I understood it wasn’t the time.
A lot of the time it was just me and mum chatting while my dad, brother and Ed waited outside. They had their own way of doing things, I understand now. On Friday 13th, we said goodbye in the afternoon with the intention of returning later that evening except dad had a phonecall that she had died at 7pm that night.
I still find myself wondering how things would be if she had survived, and resenting the doctors who told her for so long that it was ‘just a cyst’ and that she was ‘too young’ to have cancer.
Mum always encouraged me to be aware of my body and be as healthy and happy as possible, which I’m thankful for now because I know exactly what to say and what to do if I ever did find something strange.
Finding birth control as a teen was pretty difficult as the doctors wouldn’t allow me on the pill because of increased risk. I’ve been on the NuvaRing for a few years simply because the dosage isn’t as high as the pill, but even then it makes me nervous.
As my mum was so young, doctors have made it quite clear to me that I stand a high chance as it’s most likely genetic. I tried to get BRCA gene testing only for them to say to come back when I’m 30, despite my Jewish ancestry too.
Despite everything, I feel like this taught me from a young age what my priorities should be. Maybe I don’t get as nervous about exams or cellulite as others, and why should I? So long as you have your health and love then what else do you need?
Noone talks about younger women having cancer or the stress they have to go through to be taken seriously. No matter how old you are, you should always always check yourself and be aware of your body and anything that feels strange to you. Never dismiss it. I often wonder if my mum would still be alive today if there was more understanding from the beginning.
Of course, donate to Breast Cancer research and Cancer research in general. However, I feel like it’s equally as important to support cancer support charities like Macmillan who did unspeakable amounts to support me and my family, and continue to drop in and say hello to this day. I’ve linked the UK-based charities but, by all means, please do what you can to support ones in your area too.
This is a very personal experience for me, but I know too many people who have gone through similar situations. You always assume that it won’t happen to you or someone you know and we should do our best to really make that the case. Raise awareness, donate, and teach your children to understand their bodies and trust their minds.