Leavetaking: The realities of cancer aren’t talked about enough
In a new weekly column about my mother’s terminal cancer, I’ll be charting those realities with her blessing and help
‘My mother has a year, “hopefully, maybe”, according to her doctors.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
When I wrote last July about my mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis at 57, the response was shocking. Consumed by my own grief and fear of losing my mother – who raised my brother and me alone in difficult circumstances – I closed myself off from the world around me to a large extent.
When someone you dearly love is diagnosed with such a hopeless illness, the perimeter of your universe is the perimeter of their shrinking body. Awareness that many people are diagnosed with or affected by cancer was there in my mind all the time, but it wasn’t until that column was published that I realised the extent of it.
I wrote (some might say self-indulgently) about my grief, and what came back was an explosive outpouring of loss from readers. So many people contacted me to talk about the loss of their own parents, the sense of smallness it created, and how it rocketed them, lost and alone, directly back to childhood.
I had been distressed by the idea of losing my mother, because I adore her, of course, but also because I feared for who I would be in her absence. She has – directly and indirectly – shaped me. Without her there to value me unconditionally, to praise and to criticise me, I might not recognise myself.
After the diagnosis, I felt all the uncertainty and insecurity of a child. This horrifying situation is about my mother, not me, and yet I felt an intense need to be guided by her, to be told what she needed, and what to do.
Of course, that need was selfish. She had been given the news that she had maybe 12 months left. Practicalities were the last things she had the capacity to think about. So the world shifted and our roles reversed. I became the parent and the nurturer, trying to set aside the roiling fog of my feelings and decide what to do. How can I make her life easier, better? How can I take care of her?
A clinical room
It happens something like this. You sit in a clinical room with a doctor who has given so much bad news to people already that day. He or she tells you that you are going to die. The natural question to ask is “How long do I have?”
If you’re lucky enough to have someone who loves you there for support, they sit in a chair to the side, witnessing this exchange and trying not to cry out as their innards are shredded to pulp by the pointed words being dragged through them. They cannot support you in any way that is a real comfort. They know it, and so do you, but it cannot be said aloud. Everyone in the room, on hearing this appalling truth, will feel entirely alone.
My mother has pancreatic cancer. One of the angriest, ugliest and most hopeless types. She has a year, “hopefully, maybe”, according to her doctors. After you have had a day or two to adjust to the news that someone who feels entirely necessary to you is going to die, you must do what you must always do amid a terrible crisis: make a list of all the dull, irritating tasks to be completed.
A death sentence does not liberate you from paperwork or financial worry. There are so many things to be considered, and all of them are dependent upon the ill person being able to face what they’ve been told. If they can’t, then forms don’t get signed, progress isn’t made and, most disturbingly, the limited time that is left is wasted. My mother, luckily, did not become depressed at this news, although I wouldn’t have begrudged her if she had. Depression would be a very rational response.
In this column, which I will be writing with my mother’s help and with her blessing, I’ll be charting life with her, and some of the realities of cancer that aren’t talked about enough.
Despite the pain and the horror of the situation, there are still moments of happiness. Humour is one way to talk about it, and it needs to be talked about. Regardless, in an unknown number of months’ time, we must take our leave of one another. It won’t be polite or consensual. We will be torn from one another and we are powerless to prevent it. That is something that I have no doubt I’ll spend the duration of this column endeavouring to accept.