Conversations I'd rather not have ~
“I have this dodgy little thing, just on the side … here,” I tell my youngest child, waving my hand vaguely around one side of my chest. There are certain words I do not want to say to him; not yet.
“Breast cancer?” he asks, and his eyes fill.
He is otherwise completely silent; his face doesn’t crumple, but his tears creep down his cheeks.
(He is barely 16 years old – and he knows about this stuff?)
“Well … yes, but it’s a just a little lump. I’ve told the doctor to just take it away, completely away. I’m sure we’ve got it early … it's going to be fine!”
My hands are on his shoulders and I am smiling reassuringly. I am thinking:
“Gosh, I sound strong! I’m making this sound as though I’m about to have a simple procedure in my G.P’s office.”
And then I realise I’m not crying. Why am I not crying? I cry at … everything! Maybe it’s because I’ve been working up to this moment and I’ve firmly resolved to show my children and my mother – all my loved ones – I’m strong and positive and I’ve no intention of being beaten by this.
He bends to hug me and I feel small in my boy’s arms. He hugs me for a long time. I can hear his little sniffles and his swallowing back the threat of any ‘real crying.’
I want him to believe it’s not too serious and certainly not life-threatening (although my surgeon told me “all cancer is potentially life-threatening,” when I asked the hard question).
I want him to sense my positive attitude. I want him to remember he has a Mum who is physically fit and mentally strong, and to realise it’s me calling the shots. It’s me telling my surgeon what was to be done (Oh, the little white lies we tell to protect our children from pain and fear!).
I don’t use the word ‘mastectomy’ in this conversation with my son. Surgery’s just eight days away, and I’m sure I’ve distressed him quite enough. I’m still trying to come to terms with it myself - preparing my own mind, my heart, my body - for the loss; for saying ‘Goodbye’ to one of m’girls.
Now I’ve given the news to one of my three children, I’ve gone into ‘on a mission’ mode.
My 18-year-old daughter is in another city – in her first year at university. I call the manager at her Halls of Residence and tell her I am going to ‘phone my daughter at seven o’clock the next evening. I ask her to ensure a certain friend of my daughter’s is somewhere nearby when I make the call. That friend’s mother is a friend of mine who has just been through breast cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, too. The Halls’ manager suggests she also tells the two R.A. (Residential Assistants) that my daughter will be receiving some “distressing news” at seven o’clock the following evening.
My eldest child still lives at home. She is 23, cannot speak and has a severe intellectual disability. She has no concept of cancer, let alone what her Mum is now facing. I am already worrying about finding care for her when I go to hospital and when I have chemotherapy or radiotherapy - or both.
Yet again, I rehearse the conversations in my head; what I will say to my Mum, and how I will tell my daughter over the ‘phone. That feels so wrong! I should be with her in the same room, so I can hug her, reassure her – so she can see and sense my strength.
Driving to my mother’s house the next morning, my stomach is churning and I’m feeling highly anxious. I am trembling and hoping she does not notice. I knock on her door and she talks about her day’s plans and how she’s just had a ‘phone call from someone (I can’t even remember who it was … I am not listening).
I am trying to be patient, to hear her out – it’s just another normal day, another day like the last, a normal catch-up and a coffee with my Mum. Only, it’s not.
I want to say: “Mum, stop talking! I have breast cancer and I’m sorry. I’m sorry to do this to you!” – because, I believe no parent should ever have to hear their only daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer. I feel I have let her down; she has already lost too many people she loves. I don’t want her to even consider the possibility she might outlive me, too.
She makes cups of tea and, as always, tells me to check if she’s making it to the strength I prefer. Then, cheerfully: “So, what’s happening in your world, darling?”
“I’ve got to have a mastectomy.” I sound matter-of-fact. Strong. Not tearful, not fearful, not anxious. But, oh my God, that wasn’t the conversation I’d written in my head!
And suddenly, there she is, the Mum I know oh, so well! Practical, purposeful, positive – and strong. I know she will cry, later, when she is alone. But for now, she's all about making me feel safe. And, in that moment, I know I am going to get through this. I am going to be okay.