Cancer hits normal people
One of my earliest memories is of watching the 7pm news on ABC with my family. I couldn’t have been more than seven.
The presenter was talking about a three car collision that had killed a number of people. I remember sitting there, thinking to myself how tragic it was that something bad had happened to the families involved.
I remember how glad I was that nothing bad had ever happened to my family. I believed nothing ever would.
Everyone has that same feeling when we hear bad news - we’re glad it isn’t us. To some extent we go beyond that and think that nothing bad will happen to our family, it only happens to other people.
"It came as a complete shock"
when something bad finally happened to my family. For me, my family wasn’t involved in a horrific car crash, our house wasn’t burgled and all our possessions stolen, our house didn’t burn to the ground. The terrible thing that hit our family was cancer.
I recall the day so vividly it’s almost scary, I remember everything down to what I was wearing. It was 2005, I was fourteen and the week leading up to discovering that cancer had hit my family was turning out to be a really good one.
My grades were up at school, I had gotten three awards at the end of year ceremony, my Mum had just moved her business into new premises and for the first time my Dad’s parents had visited and actually got along with my Mum.
On the Friday of what I thought was shaping up to be an excellent week I began to suspect something was up. Sitting in the back of Dad’s Ute with my best friend I saw a man drive up to our house and begin to talk to my Dad. I didn’t catch all the conversation but I understood enough to know that something was wrong with Mum.
When I asked my Dad about it he told me not to worry, that nothing was going on, that Mum was fine. He lied.
That evening when Dad went out to get takeaway I cornered Mum in the kitchen and demanded to know what was up. She told me somewhat reluctantly that she had cancer. The first question I asked her was whether it was malignant or not because I had read the word in a story about a girl with bone cancer. Mum said yes, it was malignant.
"I wasn’t sure what to say"
to her so I ran upstairs to find my copy of Oxford’s dictionary. I hadn’t actually known what malignant meant when I asked her, but I had a feeling it wasn’t good. I remember sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor and flipping through the dictionary frantically until I finally found it.
“Malignant – (of a tumour) tending to invade normal tissue or to recur after removal; cancerous.”
I couldn't believe it. I sat in my room for ages. My fish & chips went cold. I was stunned at first. Then I skipped past sad and went straight to angry. I was so unbelievably angry.
Angry because everything had been going so well. Angry because it was so unfair. Angry because it was my Mum! Angry at cancer for taking my grandmother who I only remember as being sick all the time.
Lastly, I was angry at my parents for trying to keep it from me. I understand now that they were trying to protect me by telling me that Mum was going to Sydney for a business trip and that Dad was going with her. I had been so excited to stay and my best friend’s house on a school night, now I felt lied to and hurt.
Mum was still coming to terms with the fact that she now had the disease that took her own mother from her only five years earlier. Mum was scared that she would have the same journey as my grandmother.
"Our family has seen what the treatment does to you."
You see, finding out you have cancer or that someone close to you does is only the first shock. Some people who have an encounter with cancer believe that they weren't aware of what the treatment for it can do to you, that the fear of not knowing is the worst thing.
I would say the opposite. Our family had witnessed my grandmother battle the disease for years and years. We saw what chemotherapy did to her and I couldn't comprehend how something that was supposed to make her better could make her so sick.
I was terrified for my Mum and looking back I cannot fathom how terrified of going through what her Mum went through she must have been.
One of the worst things was that my parents continued to try to keep the reality of the situation from me. I was not seven anymore, I was fourteen.
I felt that if I was expected to start behaving like an adult by taking on more responsibility then I should be treated like an adult, and part of that was being informed of what was going on.
Everything went fine with Mum's surgery but I knew that the 'adults' still weren't telling me everything. I could sense it. It wasn't until Mum started chemotherapy that I really knew for sure that they had been hiding things from me.
With Dad at work early in the morning he missed seeing Mum struggle to get out of bed. I know it wasn't his fault and I don't blame him, he had his own way of coping and I have to respect that. But it was hard for me to see my Mum so weak.
"She was supposed to look after me and now I was looking after her."
It's a confronting thing to have the parent/child role reversed when you are only fourteen. It feels somewhat unnatural and I became fiercely protective of my Mum. Most of my anger over the situation was re-directed towards people who stared when she wore a headscarf, or to my friends who just couldn’t understand.
My worst memory, and unfortunately my most vivid one, is of Mum crying out one morning from her bedroom. I rushed in still with my toothbrush in my mouth and I sort of stopped dead. Mum was standing in the en-suite shower, her hands in front of her face, and in her hands was her hair.
Her hair that we all thought was going to stay in, it wasn't coming out in bits and pieces. We were halfway through her first round of chemotherapy and still nothing was falling out. It came out in one go and I think that's the point at which it really hit me that this was for real.
Mum was crying and looking at the hair that had come out, she was so shocked and frightened by it that I didn't know what else to do but hug her.
My school uniform got saturated and the water began to run cold but I couldn't let go. I thought to myself how unfair this was, how totally and completely unfair.
Cancer hits people like that a lot, and that’s one of the cruelest aspects. Everything goes well for a while and then suddenly there’s a sheer drop into another confronting circumstance.
Whether it be a sudden diagnosis, or seeing a person you love have hair falling out in one fell swoop. The day Mum’s hair fell out was the first day I got to school late. It happened quite a few times and I got detention for it because I wouldn’t give a reason for being late. I didn't want my teachers or my friends to know that Mum was sick. I wasn’t ashamed of her, far from it.
"School was a refuge for me"
Where people didn’t act like you were emotionally fragile, about to start crying at any moment. My friends still joked with me, and school carried on as usual.
When I decided to tell my friends about My Mum’s illness it was only after they started to ask questions. They had begun to notice that I got off the bus earlier than usual and that I walked in the direction of the hospital, where I went most afternoons when Mum had an appointment or when she was undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
As I was telling my friends I made sure to ask them to treat me as normal. I was adamant about it because I am not the type of person who likes to show their emotions about how they feel. I get very passionate about non-people related issues but I don’t like to communicate when I am upset.
This tendency caused a huge problem with my Mum because she felt like I didn’t care. She didn’t realise that this was my way of coping; much like my Dad’s was of coping was to throw himself into work.
I can’t say that I wished I had told her how I felt more because I tried to communicate it through non-verbal means. Now my family recognises how each of us copes with issues instead of trying to express ourselves the same way and that was a turning point in my Mum’s journey with cancer.
Although it affected her no less physically than before, once she understood that my Dad and I did care but that we coped by being reserved, I think she dealt with how we reacted better.
"My Mum’s journey with cancer forced me to grow up a lot quicker"
It didn’t impact me as hard as it would have had she not been very sick once before, shortly after my grandmother’s death. I already knew how to cook my own dinner and get myself off to school in the mornings. The hardest part was being an only child and not being able to lean on another sibling for support.
My Dad was there but dealing with your wife having cancer and your Mum having cancer are entirely different things. Mum is in remission now, although there is always the fear that her cancer will return. At first I though remission meant that the cancer had gone but now I understand that remission merely means that the remaining cancerous cells aren’t doing anything at the moment.
I wish in some ways that I’d had more support when my Mum was going through cancer as I didn’t join CanTeen until I was sixteen, and my Mum had gone into remission. Having people who get it is one of the most important things to have when you have an experience with cancer.
It’s not because you talk to them all the time about what it’s like, and it’s not because they help you learn more about cancer. It’s a lot more than that. It’s knowing they are there if you need it. Knowing help was there was a huge part of ensuring that I didn’t feel as lost or isolated as I would have otherwise.
I don’t watch the news anymore and think something terrible will never happen to my family, because something did.
"My experience with cancer was hard"
It’s not until you take a step back that you realise how it has emotionally changed your perception of things. I worry less about things like when I’ll buy my first house and more about other things like how I can afford to travel as much as possible.
Watching a parent go through cancer makes you grow up quick but it also can force you to re-evaluate where you want your journey in life to take you. My Mum is a lot less stressed about bills and finances – she believes that it’s better to die in debt as the bank can’t force you to pay them then.
She wants to travel more and sees her cancer experience as a wake-up.
As a young person who had an experience with cancer I’m glad my wake-up came when I was young enough to re-direct what I want to do with my life.
I wish I could say that our family is much more close knit now, or that I don’t find with my parents as much, but I can’t. The truth is that after my Mum went into remission our family went back to functioning somewhat as normal, although not everyone’s family does. That is one of the scariest things about cancer.
It doesn’t only hit smokers by giving them lung cancer, or children by giving them leukaemia.
Cancer hits normal people when they least expect it. It comes in and changes your family. Some changes are good, some aren’t. But it does change your family, and it does change you.