What Do You Do When Your Wife Is Diagnosed With Breast Cancer?
It’s a funny thing. We are all living one and they always seem the same. In many ways, they are. We are all striving to earn a living, have a home, own some things and be alive tomorrow to do it all again. The drivers behind how you are living are vastly different. For some, it is to ride through the ranks of the company you work at. For others, it is merely to survive each hour of that day one minute at a time.
I speak from a privileged, western world perspective. Growing up, I never had everything but I never went without. It was never enough, of course, it never is, but I made it through my teenage years relatively unscathed and ventured out into the working world to make money.
I did well at it, although I got the work/life balance wrong on many occasions. I had the occasional health scare, lumps on my testicles, heart palpitations, but came through it all unscathed. I escaped the rat race when I turned forty and realised that everything I needed to live with in this world I had. My wife and my dog.
I ventured into the creative market and had started to finally do a job I enjoyed for the first time in nearly 25 years. I finally felt things were going right.
One day, Jo asked me to feel a lump she’d found while taking a shower. Nothing new there, ever since finding my lump downstairs, I expected that we’d find a few as we got older. Still, better safe than sorry. I’d had mine checked and they turned out to be a fluid blockage and nothing unsavoury, so, best go get an appointment and check her out.
A GP referral and a hospital biopsy found us sitting in Brighton’s Park Centre, waiting to go in for the results. Up to this point, I had done nothing more than let Jo know that it wouldn’t be anything. We had our tenth wedding anniversary looming that August and nothing was going to change that.
Sitting there, I still had every fibre of my being telling me that it would be nothing.
The memory of being called in to see the consultant, a junior trainee and a nurse are quite clear. Having the 3D scans appear on the screen of Jo’s chest is also clear. Hearing the consultant say, quite simply and without alarm, ‘.. and here is the cancer that we are going to remove…’
It felt no different than a regular visit to a doctor where you are given a prescription, smiled at and told to get well soon. It was that normal.
Leaving him behind, having been told the planned journey we were all about to go on together, we thanked him and walked with the nurse to another room where, having let the reality sink in for all of four minutes, Jo cried. I held her and, for the first time in our life together, I had nothing to say. The nurse gave us a moment, Jo apologised for crying in front of her and with that, we carried on.
When we walked out of there, within the first five minutes, we’d already decided that whatever it took, we would beat it. If it meant a mastectomy, we’d have it (we even joked that Jo had wanted new boobs but I thought this was an extreme way to get them) and then she decided she needed to tell people. The first phone call? Jo called the airline she was working for to let them know she wouldn’t be in tomorrow, before we called her Mum, Dad, Sister, Aunt. The phone calls you hope you never have to make.
What followed is an eighteen month period of my life that I can’t fully recall. It wasn’t happening directly to me so I thought that I had no right to be angry, upset, scared or feel anything about it. I’m not good at talking about things, never have been, but that isn’t because I’m scared to or feel it would make me less of a man. It’s because I never seem to say things in the right way. So, by way of redress, here goes.
I don’t feel anything toward cancer. It is a disease. It is a shit thing that preys on us. It attacks without remorse on its victims and it can, if you let it, define you. It isn’t to be taken lightly, after all, it can kill you. But then, so can the common cold, eating too much and many other things we deal with everyday.
Technically, on the day of Jo having her lumpectomy, when she came round in that hospital bed, all dopey and hazy, at that point, she was cancer free. The surgeon and his team had removed the cancer so, on the face of it, apart from the slightly tired look, she was Jo. But the worst bit of cancer is how they have to treat you next. Chemotherapy. Effectively, a complete immune system hard reset that takes place over successive weeks and turns the person you know into someone you don’t.
At first, they’re tired. For us, it was after the second week that Jo and I believed we might be in the small minority that wouldn’t suffer the hair loss. By the third week, I’d shaved her head. The weeks became a repetitive rhythm of our life on pause. Week one, go have the chemo dose. Week two, her low point of feeling drained and tired, week three, energy levels start to pick up. Just as she starts to feel better, off we trot to have her poisoned again. Each successive dose, her low point gets lower.
All the while, I’m helpless. There is little to do apart from exist, to be there and help her if she wants something. I go out to walk the dog each morning and evening. I go and get food. I keep her comfortable with all the trash magazines and TV she can consume to take her mind off real life. I don’t reply to text messages, emails or phone calls. I get by doing the bare minimum. I’ve become a carer, not because she is incapable but because she is my world and I’m fucked if I’m going to lose it.
At the beginning of all of this, we’d had many conversations about wigs, makeup, operations, joked about how we would cope or manage. The grim truth is that while she went through this, everything else in the world didn’t exist. Not to me. All I needed to do was get her through it and back to normal as soon as possible.
Once the chemo was to be completed, we had radiotherapy to go but getting to the end of the chemo was the main goal.
Like a child’s innocence of youth, we had no idea that the chemotherapy would prove to be the easiest bit.
August 31st 2016 is a date that I will hate until my final breath. To many, it may have been just another Wednesday. In the morning, we went to yet another part of Sussex general hospital that we would visit on more then one occasion. Jo, up to this point, had shown a resolve toward the treatment that I was in awe of. It had become as routine as getting dressed and she wore all the trips to hospital well.
But radiotherapy was different. Essentially, going inside a room half naked to be burned in a specific part of your body, isn’t a glorifying experience. But this day was to signal an opening of personal feeling that I hadn’t experienced since childhood.
Over the course of the year, our beloved dog Murray, had started to slow down. So she should, having had her since she was roughly one year old, she was the single longest, chosen female relationship I’d had. Here she was having turned sixteen but her time had started to be something we had to face was coming to an end. As such, we’d made one last trip to the Lake District with her so she could have one last paddle in her favourite lake.
And so it came to pass.
That evening, the evening of Jo having had her first radiotherapy, Sean, our vet, came round at 6pm.
On the floor, in the kitchen, next to our dining table, Jo sat, crumpled and beaten in floods of tears, while I, for one last time, lay lightly with Murray, holding her in between my arms as the blue liquid flowed from Sean’s depressed thumb into the canular in her front leg. For as long as I live, her final breath will resonate in my ears and on my heart as she, finally and silently, went to sleep.
I carried her to Sean’s car and, for the first time in just over fifteen years, I walked back into a life that would only ever have us two in it. The tears you cry have a heat that you’ve never felt. Scientists have been unable to prove so far that a soul exists. For me, this is where they should look.
As the radiotherapy continued, Jo was retreating in to herself. Her body was struggling with everything it was having thrown at it and mentally, neither of us were in a good place.
Looking back, and writing this, I realise now that I should have asked for help. I didn’t of course. I just used that oft statement of ‘I’m fine’ and referred people to wishing Jo well. I’d laugh anything off, as is my way, and paid no attention to any warning signs, big or small, that I wasn’t coping.
How could I sit and cry because I was helpless to reassure Jo that she’d be OK when I had no idea if she would be? How could I tell her that one day, the reason I’d been out so long wasn’t because of traffic but actually because I’d driven around the South Downs quieter roads just crying? How do you let anyone know that’s what you’ve been doing? I felt helpless. Useless. Afraid. Alone.
Looking back, I realise that it needn’t have been this way. You’re not alone, even when you think you are. But it takes a lot to admit something to others when you won’t even admit it to yourself. Happiness or comfort could be found in ignoring the feeling. Another beer, another takeaway, another binge of TV to ignore the real world. It’s just easier that way, surely?
Well, it was. But, as with all these diversion tactics I was putting in place, I finally needed to face up to the real world and re-engage with it all. Thing is, by now, it was nearly two years since we’d retreated from everyone. It’s still difficult. We’re still slowly starting to talk to people. There are some people who we haven’t even told what we’ve been dealing with.
We don’t feel victims of cancer. If anything, Jo having cancer has been something we’ve taken a positive from. We are now talking more than ever about things. We want to love our life doing as many things as we can together. We still have individual goals but all the trappings of modern life hold nearly zero interest for us. We simply want to live.
If there’s anything I can write here that might help you if you’re going through this, it is one simple request. Talk. Talk to your partner. Talk to your family. Talk to a professional. If you want, talk to us. There is no ‘one size fits all’ to going through cancer, either as the patient or their support. We are all different and so all the answers won’t be the same.
But talking is a good start.
Words by Alex Lawrence
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