Saturday, 11 April 2015

115. Of Owls, emotions and a teenage son


11 April 2014

This is rapidly turning into Owl's story rather than mine.

Although of course it is mine, my deeper, truer story perhaps. I am flabbergasted by its power, the way it instantly reaches the part of me that dares not show itself.

"I am frightened" doesn't ring true, because I don't recognise myself when I am frightened.

"I don't want to be a cancer patient" may be true, but it sounds petulant, complaining, angry perhaps.

But when I say "Owl is frightened", I am filled with compassion for him, for myself. Choked with compassion. Poor, poor Owl. Of course he is frightened.

Of course I am.

And I know that no amount of reassurance or shows of strength can take his fear away. No use saying that thousands of Owls before him have had cancer and got through it and are fine. He knows that.

But he is frightened, and all I can do is sit with him, sit with himself, and allow him his fear.

Owl doesn't want to be a cancer patient. That is not a statement borne of petulance or rebellion against life: it is a frightened whisper.

I don't want to be a cancer patient, not because it clashes with my role as competent and in-control woman, but because it clashes with my sense of self. It turns my world inside out.

Isn't that the hardest thing?

So many people have credited Owl with wisdom, yet here he is, toppled over (literally) by the slightest breeze.

Here I am, with my life so full of blessings, aged 50 and never suffered any significant loss or life challenge. Early stage breast cancer hardly ranks highly on the list of possible challenges, but like Owl, I am blown over.


I am feeling much less nervous, physically, than earlier in the week. I no longer have that constant weight in my stomach, the lurching, the butterflies. Perhaps I am getting used to being classed as a cancer patient? To the uncertainty it brings?

But I am living on such an emotionally charged level.

The slightest thing turns on the tears, and that is something I am no longer used to. Weeks, months, even a few years can go by without any need to cry about my life (crying at films or beautiful music doesn't count).

But now, I cry when I think about myself.

I cry when I write about Owl and his feelings.

I cry when people are nice to me (and so many people are nice).

I cry when I suddenly have more to do than I thought I had: tears of not coping.

The sound of the cello, the feeling of hot water on my skin, a loving embrace: everything moves me to tears. It is as if I am connected to the raw essence of life and love, all the time, and it is exhausting.

A few days ago, I wrote about the unhelpful things people do or say.

How a focus on themselves, rather than on me, turns their words from supportive into an ordeal.

I feel a bit mean now, having said that. There have been several such people in recent days, and I am so conscious of how hard it is for them to be confronted with illness or death. Most people are simply not experienced with communicating about such things, or too fearful of being confronted with the emotions of the suffering, the ill and the bereaved, and so they can't really listen.

I am feeling much warmer towards everyone now and try to encourage as much openness as possible by talking openly myself.

And I am learning to ignore the comments or suggestions that aren't helping.


My son returned from his school trip last night. It was late and he was tired, but my husband and I both agreed that this couldn't wait.

So we sat him down at the kitchen table and told him that I have cancer and will need treatment.

"Oh, OK," he said in typical teenage-boy fashion, matter-of-fact and devoid of emotion or the betrayal of any concerns.

This evening, he and I have spent a long drive together. We are on our way to Holland, where he has a rowing camp (he missed the outward journey on the school coach as he was too busy returning from the other school trip, so I'm dropping him off in Amsterdam; I will then join my older daughter who is staying with my sister). I am writing this in the cabin of the overnight Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry.

[Are you keeping up? Blimey, such complex arrangements. I do remember how worried I was about this trip. Would I be in a fit state to drive all the way to Holland? Would I crash the car? But all went well. In fact it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because car journeys are excellent for talking to teenagers.]

So, without being asked, I talked and talked about everything.

I talked about the MRI scan, the difference between radiotherapy and chemotherapy, why we need to wait for the results and what we are waiting for. I gave him all the technical knowledge I could think of.

He listened; he asked the occasional question.

"Is chemotherapy where your hair falls out?"

It can be. I explain why: how chemo kills fast-growing cells, and therefore kills cancer, but also affects healthy cells and in particular the ones that grow fast: hair; the lining of your stomach and gut. Hence the side effects: hair loss, diarrhoea, vomiting.

"Doesn't radiotherapy kill all the cells, even the healthy ones?"

It does. That's why the machine turns round, concentrating on the spot in the middle which will get blasted most. And that's why you have to keep coming back: you simply cannot have it all in one go.

I tell him how lucky I am, getting this now and not 20 or 30 years ago when treatment was far less sophisticated or successful; and getting it in my breast, where it can be found early enough.

"How did you find it? Did you just feel it?"

Yes, I did.

I told him everything, the whole story, from first feeling the lump and being so sure it was harmless, to waiting to hear how much of my breast has cancer.

My son won't ask questions, so I will just keep telling him what's happening, without being asked.

[Which is exactly what I've done, always. With all three of them. Test results, trips to the hospital, meetings with the consultant: I've reported everything as part of "this is what happened today". I have never sat them down again for a semi-formal conversation (too nerve racking for all of us!), but told them any news immediately, individually. Each child has needed a different approach, a different language. With my son, the approach has often been: talk to his back whilst he's sitting at the computer. Worked a treat, and he clearly thought so too... see my blog post on talking to teenagers about cancer]

To be continued...

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