Today is World Cancer Day. Please read, I’m reminding all HR leaders to check out their EAPs and benefits packages to see if their employees are missing out on free cancer support, as this could make a huge difference to their staff and dependents.
I wrote my own story (below) a few years ago for World Cancer Day, but it’s as relevant today as then. It is a painful read, but I hope it gets the message across that cancer support and grief counselling is invaluable.
I learned about cancer at age 11 – you could say it was a very steep learning curve.
Before this education started, I lost my Father. Prior to that I’d been a high flyer, scoring well on exams, popular and generally loved life, which revolved around gymnastics, my friends and future plans, which included university and a career in law.
My Father’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage hit me like a bolt from the blue, but a few short months after, my Mother got sick, too.
She had surgery, was pronounced ‘cured’, but would walk around the house, crying in pain holding a hot water bottle against her stomach, day and night, and was told by doctors she was better but her mind just wasn’t ready to accept it. They were so very wrong.
My beautiful Mother, Martha Margaret Miskimmin, despite the very grand name was simply ‘Peg’ to her friends and family, and her battle, though fought incredibly bravely and with dignity was a slow, painful deterioration and was heartbreaking to watch, even more painful to remember.
Being an opportunitistic brat, I’d sometimes try to skive the day off school. My normal Mum would send me to school no matter what, but poorly Mum would occasionally let me stay home. If only I’d known what was coming, I don’t think I’d have let her out of my sight for a second.
After the tests she was eventually offered confirmed what my Mother knew already, that the cancer had come back, she was admitted to hospital and never came home. At some point over those agonising months of daily visits I lost my Mother.
Mum’s physical death almost paled into insignificance as she turned from the life and soul of the party into a bed-ridden soul on strong pain meds, with only occasional moments of lucidity.
I hated those who said her eventual death was ‘a blessing’, she was my Mum, my friend and my rock, how dare anyone say that her passing was good, but certainly her death released her from pain. Mine, numbed by shock and grief, was just beginning.
I had no counselling or support, my parents were there one day, we were all happy, then within a single year my sister and I had attended two funerals, and as Mum’s house came with her job, I was forced to move from my school and local friends early on in her illness.
I had a whole new circle of friends and absolutely every part of my life had changed. My cousin was like my brother and his Mum was really supportive, but no kindness could even touch the edge of the loss. I trusted nobody, not even life itself.
Angry, lost and feeling totally alone, I grew into a pain in the ass teenager and rebelled against everything. I had multiple attempts from kind teachers, grown up family friends, later social workers and the like, all aiming to bring back the high achiever I’d previously been but not one of them asked me to talk about my parents. My grown up sister had no help either and I’m sure my rebellious behaviour brought her one more challenge she didn’t need.
My life had turned upside down and we were simply left to deal with the fallout. Family did their best to support us, but it’s not like anyone else had a script or knew what to say. Besides, they all had their own grief, too. They did all use one word about me, though – ‘wow, she’s so strong for a child!’ I used to think, it’s not like I have a bloody choice! Not one person ever told me that it was bloody unfair and that it was ok to be pissed off – underneath, I was silently tamping for years!
Losing both parents in close proximity left me independent, isolated by grief and not talking about their loss.
My coping skills, however, didn’t help. I became willing to battle the world, making me look tough on the outside. I still get called ‘strong’ and ‘resilient’ – and I’m sure others have called me far worse! However, life is not supposed to be a constant battle, and I think I’ve often made poor choices that have seen me ‘battling’ just to get through the day – and when my own run out, I’ve been the first to get behind a ’cause’ and fight someone elses battles!
Oddly enough, in all the battles I’ve fought since my Mum, sub-consciously trying to win that one, that loss has never felt any better. It’s not just my loss either, my sister, her sisters and brother and all her friends lost her too. My children and grandchildren never had the pleasure of meeting my Mother, and she would have made an amazing Grandma!
I did eventually get my law degree, allbeit part-time and pursued a career in digital marketing, though much of my life I have been self employed.
In recent years I had the counselling I probably should have had years ago, and it has really changed things for me. The battles and disastrous relationships I now know were the product of unresolved grief are now in my past. Over 40 years later, I still miss my parents, but it’s far less acute. My focus is on my future.
I’ve learned to make better choices and choose to walk an easier path. I have expressed the anger I never got to express at age 11 in a healthier way, I have a business I enjoy, a very supportive husband, brilliant work colleagues and beautiful, strong and happy daughters – and three beautiful grandchildren.
I pay my bills on time, I choose to spend my time with pleasant people and if people make me feel bad or unhappy, I’ve learned to release them gently from my life, preferably without conflict.
So why, 40 years after my Mum’s death am I finally putting pen to paper and writing this?
My Mum may not have survived her cancer, but I did. I, my sister, my Mum’s friends and family were all part of the fallout of that illness, yet only my Mum got treatment.
These days, that’s changing and amazing services like Macmillan Nurses and RedArc Nurses offer support for the whole family – and EAPs are recognising this, including a 24 hour helpline in many of their packages. I want employers to recognise the value that this support delivers.
They would have been there to listen when my poor Mum was alone, crying and in pain with nobody to call at 3am. After her death, I was the one crying and with no-one to talk to, but I could have called them too.
If it sounds good, it is, but the best news is that often employers have FREE access to this cancer support already – they just haven’t read what’s included in their benefits packages.
Counselling and support made a huge difference to my life. If I could have accessed it earlier, I would not have wandered in the wilderness of grief for forty years, moving from battle to battle.
My Mum’s battle may be over, other people are still fighting this disease- only these days many more of them are winning.
However, when the physical disease has gone, it leaves huge mental scars in it’s wake. Sufferers need ongoing support, not just diagnosis and treatment. Again, these services can really help – and HR should explore every inch of their EAP packages to make sure they are tapping into these useful ‘add on’ benefits they did not even know existed.
Check your corporate benefits and risk packages for health telephone support, telephone counselling, or even specialist cancer support provided by nurses. It’s tucked away in the handbook, often as a forgotten side benefit for all staff. This support could still prove useful long after the initial illness, and sometimes extends support to dependants, too – and after all, your business is paying for it anyway.
Had I had access to this, I could have recovered from my own pain a lot more easily.
I’m not a researcher, I’m not a nurse, and I’ve never had cancer, but I am, in my own way, a Cancer survivor. I therefore chose to help others by sharing this story again today.
If you are in HR, you can really make a difference too – just by checking what’s on offer and letting your staff know about it.
If just one employer reading this chooses to check and communicate the cancer support resources in their benefits package more effectively (after all, they pay for it!) as a result of reading my story, perhaps the loss of my Mum will have made a difference.
Because, even after 40 years, even after the counselling, the battles, I still want her quiet, painful fight to count for something.
Thanks for reading x