Today is World Cancer Day.
This Editor is no stranger to being in print. I’ve been published in so many magazines now, I’ve lost count and I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. However, I’ve sat through World Cancer Day every year since forever without uttering a syllable on my own behalf. I’ve also never mentioned my beautiful Mother, Martha Margaret Miskimmin, who despite the very grand name was simply ‘Peg’ to her friends and family.
I learned about cancer at age 11 – you could say it was a very steep learning curve. I’d lost my Father the year before, and then my Mother got sick. She had surgery, was pronounced ‘cured’, but would walk around the house, crying in pain holding a hot water bottle against her stomach.
Being an opportunitistic brat, I’d sometimes try to skive the day off school and unlike my normal Mum, who would send me to school no matter what, 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 eventually confirmed what my Mother knew already, that the cancer had come back, she was eventually taken in to hospital and at some point over the agonising months before her death, I lost my Mother. Her 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 occasional moments of lucidity. I still hated those who said her death was ‘a blessing’, she was my Mum, my friend and my rock, but certainly her death released her from pain. Mine was just beginning.
I became a pain in the ass teenager, I had multiple attempts from some 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.
I had no counseling or support, my parents were there one day, within a single year we had attended two funerals, we had to move house because my Mum’s house came with her job, so 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 everything had changed. My cousin was like my brother and his Mum was really supportive, but no kindness could touch the edge of the loss.
My life had turned upside down and my older sister and I 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 did indeed leave me independent and not talking about their loss. My coping skills left me happy to battle where needed – this has made me look tough on the outside. I do 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 never had the pleasure of meeting my Mother, and she would have made an amazing Grandma!
In recent years I’ve had the counselling I probably should have had years ago, and 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 job I enjoy, I have a very supportive husband, brilliant work colleagues and beautiful, strong and happy daughters.
I may have had no choice in the path I walked at age 11, but I can choose where I walk now. 40 years later, I still miss my parents, but it’s far less acute. 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 a 24 hour helpline would certainly have helped when my poor Mum was left walking in the middle of the night with her hot water bottle.
I want people to realise the value of early support and intervention for families of cancer patients. Counselling made a huge difference to my life and I don’t want other people to be like me, wandering in a wilderness for forty years, moving from battle to battle.
There are lessons for others, too. 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. That’s where employers can help.
Many employers don’t realise that their benefits and risk packages often offer cancer support as a side benefit for all staff – which may be useful long after the illness, and this often extends to dependants, too. Had I had access to this, I could have recovered from my own pain a lot more easily.
The theme of this year’s World Cancer Day is ‘We Can, I Can’.
I’m not a researcher, I’m not a nurse, but I am, in my own way, a Cancer survivor. ‘I Can’ write and share my story.
‘YOU Can’, too.
If one employer checks and communicates 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, I still want her quiet, painful fight to count for something.
Thanks for reading x